Swiss filmmaker Michael Koch’s second feature, A Piece of Sky (Drii Winter), offers a meditative study of a love that blossoms in springtime but must change like the seasons when misfortune strikes in the Swiss Alps.

Earning a Special Mention from the main competition jury at the Berlinale may help this beautifully made work find footing in a harsh distribution landscape, especially since on paper it might sound hard to scale with its all non-professional cast and tragic path.

Although almost every film is better seen in a cinema, that’s especially true of this one given its dependence on silence and stillness. The immersive conditions of a dark theater might be particularly necessary to appreciate the mountainous terrain where it’s set, captured in a nearly squarish 1:37 aspect ratio, aka Academy ratio, that emphasizes soaring verticals.

THE BOTTOM LINE: The hills are alive with the sound of weeping.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition)

Cast: Michele Brand, Simon Wisler, Elin Zgraggen, Daniela Bartmettler, Josef Aschwanden

Director/screenwriter: Michael Koch

Time: 2 hours 16 minutes

In a tiny village deep in the mountains, in a German-speaking canton of Switzerland, single mother Anna (Michele Brand, coaxed expertly by Koch into giving an astonishing performance) works several jobs, including mail courier by day and bartender by night.

‘A Piece of Sky’ (‘Drii Winter’): Film Review | Berlin 2022

Although there is some tourism, and the odd visit from an Indian film crew hoping to use the mountains as backdrops for dance sequences (this actually happens in the film, making for a delightful moment of cheeriness), dairy farming is the main local industry.

The work involves hard labor, not just in terms of taking care of the cows, but in maintaining fences, cutting hay by hand with old-fashioned scythes and then moving the resulting hay bales up and down the mountain on massive pulleys. At night, the local farmers gather in the bar-hotel where Anna works to discuss livestock and market rates.

As the film starts, it becomes clear that Anna has already formed an attachment to Marco (Simon Wisler, an actual farmer in real life), a lowland outsider roughly the size of a bull, who has ascended to the town to work with cattle and raise his own small herd. Marco doesn’t say much usually, but he’s a hard worker and a gentle giant, kind to Anna and a natural father substitute for her elementary-school-aged daughter Julia.

The locals, protective of their own, warn him he better be good to Anna and Julia or else, but it seems unlikely he’d do anything but just that. Before long they’re married and dancing to 90s euro-pop banger “What Is Love?” by Haddaway like it’s a slow dance ballad, although the lyrics “Baby, don’t hurt me, don’t hurt me, no more” will prove somewhat prophetic.

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Here comes the sad bit: Headaches and then fainting fits lead Marco to agree finally to see a doctor and it turns out he has a brain tumor. Although surgery postpones the inevitable for a while, his personality begins to change as the tumor causes him to exhibit disinhibited behavior, at first just verbally and then in ways that put others at risk. Anna is forced to make hard decisions about his care.

It’s a simple enough story, so cut and dry that viewers might expect that writer-director Koch will try to zhuzh the premise up with a third-act surprise of some kind, like a supernatural occurrence or a strange twist of fate. But (spoiler alert) no, the story plays out pretty much exactly how it would in real life. The only unusual touches are the use of music, especially performances by a full choir of traditional songs that comment on the story obliquely, like a Greek chorus, as the group sings in outdoor settings.

Elsewhere, Koch deploys extreme long shots that observe figures that turn out to be characters we know seen from a vast distance, as if the mountains themselves were watching the tiny lives of its human inhabitants. There’s no sentimentalizing this natural world and the way of life for those who live there.

When a beloved cow stops being useful to the herd, it’s taken to the abattoir for slaughter. When a beloved human can no longer function as part of 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.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Competition) Cast: Michele Brand, Simon Wisler, Elin Zgraggen, Daniela Bartmettler, Josef Aschwanden Production companies: Hugofilm, Pandora Film Produktion, Swiss Radio and Television/SRG SSR, Arte Director/screenwriter: Michael Koch Producer: Christof Neracher Director of photography: Armin Dierolf Production/costume designer: Sara Giancane Editor: Florian Riegel Music: Tobias Koch, Jannik Gigler sound designer: Tobias Koch

Sales: New Europe