Second feature film by Swiss filmmaker Michael Koch, A piece of sky (Drii Winter), offers a meditative study of a love that blooms in spring but must change like the seasons when misfortune strikes in the Swiss Alps.
Winning a special mention from the competition’s main jury at the Berlinale may help this beautifully done work find its place in a difficult distribution landscape, especially since on paper it may seem difficult to scale with its entirely unprofessional cast and its tragic path. While almost any movie is best seen in a movie theater, that’s especially true for this one given its reliance on silence and stillness. The immersive conditions of a dark theater can be particularly necessary to appreciate the mountainous terrain where it is set, captured in an almost square 1:37 aspect ratio, aka the Academy ratio, which emphasizes soaring verticals .
A piece of sky
The hills are animated by the sound of crying.
In a small village deep in the mountains, in a German-speaking Swiss canton, single mother Anna (Michele Brand, expertly persuaded by Koch to give an astonishing performance) has several jobs, including courier by day and bartender by night. Although there is a bit of tourism and the odd visit from an Indian film crew hoping to use the mountains as a backdrop for dance sequences (this actually happens in the film, creating a delightful moment of gaiety), dairy farming is the main local industry. The job involves hard work, not only caring for the cows, but also maintaining the fences, cutting the hay by hand with old-fashioned scythes, then moving the resulting hay bales up and down the mountain on massive pulleys. At night, local farmers gather in the hotel bar where Anna works to discuss cattle and market prices.
As the film begins, it becomes clear that Anna has already grown attached to Marco (Simon Wisler, a real-life farmer), a lowland outsider about the size of a bull, who rode in town to work with cattle and raise his own small herd. Marco doesn’t usually say much, but he’s a hard worker and a gentle giant, kind to Anna and a natural father substitute for his school-aged daughter Julia. The townspeople, protective of their own, warn him that he better be good to Anna and Julia or whatever, but it seems unlikely that he will do anything more than that. Soon they are getting married and dancing to the 90s euro-pop hit “What Is Love?” by Haddaway as if it were a slow dance ballad, though the lyrics “Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me no more” will prove somewhat prophetic.
Here’s the saddest part: Headaches and then blackouts lead Marco to finally agree to see a doctor and it turns out he has a brain tumor. Although the surgery delays the inevitable for a while, his personality begins to change as the tumor causes him to behave uninhibited, first verbally, then in a way that puts others at risk. Anna is forced to make difficult decisions about her care.
It’s a pretty simple story, so simple that viewers might expect writer-director Koch to try to zhuzh the premise with some sort of third-act surprise, like a supernatural event or a strange twist of fate. But (spoiler alert) no, the story plays out pretty much exactly as it would in real life. The only unusual touches are the use of music, particularly the performances of a full choir of traditional songs that comment on the story obliquely, like a Greek choir, as the group sings in the open air.
Elsewhere, Koch deploys extremely long shots that observe figures that turn out to be characters we know seen from far away, as if the mountains themselves are watching the tiny lives of their human inhabitants. There is no sentimentalization of this natural world and the way of life of those who live in it. When a beloved cow ceases to be useful to the herd, she is taken to the slaughterhouse for slaughter. When a beloved human can no longer function within this small society, they are cared for humanely but kept out of sight, both for their own safety and that of the community. Death comes for all, as inevitable as snow.