There are few films capable of creating lovable and believable characters, pinning them in a tragic world that depends on expectations, and somehow still finding humor in their misfortune.
The ingredients are all there in A Piece of Sky (1980), Henrik Malyan’s societal critique about the crudeness of our world.
This is a film I came across in a thrift store, where belongings are often donated after the passing of a family member. I can imagine this film having been on someone’s shelf for decades, belonging to someone who cherished its characters and understood its themes. In some sense, it’s also a perfect instance of how wonderful films such as this one are forgotten and misplaced. In my case, however, the film made its way into my life and will hopefully make its way into your life as well.
The first image of the film is of Torik, a young orphan whose parents have recently been killed, looking into the sky and fixing his eyes on a flock of birds. This is a visual motif that the filmmaker will later use to structure his film.
Torik is placed into the hands of his aunt (Sofiko Chiaureli) and uncle (Frunzik Mkrtchyan), who are determined to provide a better life for the young boy. The situation surrounding the adoption of an orphan after his parent’s death becomes a frightening foreshadowing of the earthquake the nation would later suffer in 1988.
Torik’s uncle embraces his nephew and passes on words of wisdom. In their first walk around the neighborhood together, he urges the young boy not to be afraid of the world around him. Torik soon comes to realize the world is a cruel place, before growing older and finding his place in society on his own terms. Torik’s uncle shields the young boy from cruel scorners, as we follow his humiliation and ridicule in school because of his illiteracy, and later in the workplace, at the hurtful hands of his own uncle. Torik finds compassion and care only in the arms of his aunt.
The passing of time in this film and Torik’s transition from childhood to adulthood is seamless. In brief scenes throughout the film, Torik’s aunt stands at her door as she watches Torik and his uncle walk to work each day. The first time we see this scene, Torik is a young boy, walking to the left of his uncle. The second time we see this scene, later in the film, Torik is now a teenager, walking in the same position alongside his uncle. The third time we see this scene, Torik is now an adult (Ashot Adamyan), walking alongside his uncle. This subtle approach in the passing of several years is handled with great care in the hands of its filmmaker.
The film is clear in its intentions of making its audience an observer. In the same manner of Italian neorealism films of the 1940s and 1950s, the filmmaker uses uninterrupted takes and deep focus, presenting us with a heightened sense of the real world. There is a lot of influence from The Bicycle Thief (1948) in this film, including its father and son relationship and Tigran Mansurian’s poetic and infectious score. I’ll make the bold claim now. This is our nation’s The Bicycle Thief.
Torik’s uncle’s passing is both painful and encouraging for Torik. The world now feels as cruel as ever, but the home that Torik comes to each evening is full of love and reassurance. The time comes to find Torik a wife, but his aunt is mocked during her search, because of his occupation (he makes saddles for donkeys) and the fact that they consider him immature. There’s a touching scene when the realization sinks in for both of them, when they suddenly come to terms with the fact that perhaps no woman wants him.
The film briefly shifts its focus as we are introduced to three traveling prostitutes who have come into town from Bolis. Torik is naturally unwilling to participate, it’s not in his character, but his friend drags him along. This is where we see how socially awkward Torik really is; while his friend gets into bed with two of the women, Torik politely sits beside Anjel (Galina Belyayeva), whose name means angel, and distracts himself. Torik immediately falls in love with her, and pleads for her to come home with him as his wife.
These two orphans, who have been rejected from the world for all their flaws, are now embraced wholeheartedly by Torik’s aunt. In some sense, these are both marginalized characters, attempting to find redemption in the eyes of society. The same world that looked down upon Torik his entire life for being illiterate, now looks down upon him with even greater contempt and disgust, for taking in a prostitute as his wife. Torik, however, stands by his love for his wife, and in a brilliantly executed scene, we see how proud Torik’s wife and aunt feel when he rides them around town, showcasing his love toward his family.
In terms of its visual design, this is an expertly crafted film, using frames within frames, which represent the character’s separation from their respective worlds. There is a beautifully composed shot of Torik and his aunt in his workplace, looking outside through an open door. The shot is framed in a way that both sides are completely black, giving us the impression that the image is completely vertical. There is also a shot that could potentially have influenced Martin Scorsese. In the beginning of the film, the camera pushes in on Torik’s uncle, a technique Martin Scorsese later made his own with films like Raging Bull (1980) and Goodfellas (1990).
The film often uses humor and social satire as means of exploring these striking themes. Henrik Malyan showcases his talents as a filmmaker, as he creates a heartbreaking and humorous film about life. This is a film about trusting yourself and each other and understanding the values and importance of family. In its core, it’s also about coming to terms with the realization that we are not all equal in the eyes of society. The film’s characters are only one part of their society and world – they are only a “piece of the sky” – and Henrik Malyan does an expert job in shifting our focus into their individual lives. The performances in this film as are all authentic to its characters. Ashot Adamyan is excellent as the man child, while Sofiko Chiaureli continuously proves herself as an established performer. The quiet pain her character endures is translated effectively through her long stares and emotional despair.
The film ends with Torik proudly driving his wife and surrogate mother in the streets, smiling at the world around him. Torik is once again looking into the sky and focusing on the flying birds; however, the difference here is that this time, his family of three are the birds, free from the restraint of society, free to fly in an unsuppressed world