Cannes Review: The Falling Sky

A unique and complicated portrait of life in the Amazon

7 mins read

The Falling Sky
(Brazil/Italy/France, 110 min.)
Dir. Eryk Rocha and Gabriela Carneiro Da Cunha


Plenty of documentaries decry the devastation of the vast Amazonian rainforest, the so-called lungs of the Earth that provide mindboggling diversity of flora and fauna. As mining, forestry, and agriculture interests eat away at the extant environment, they change the delicate equilibrium that allows the rainforest to maintain its magnificence and its massive contribution to the health of the planet.

Within this seemingly desolate region that spans from northern Brazil up to Venezuela are the Yanomami people. They account for some 28,000 or so people who are indigenous to the area and they maintain much of their traditional culture despite outside influences that bring disease and displacement. It’s through the guidance of Davi Kopenawa, author of the book (along with Bruce Albert) that lends The Falling Sky its name, that filmmakers Eryk Rocha and Gabriela Carneiro Da Cunha craft a uniquely intimate look at these people and their state of being.

It would be easy to simplify the film as anthropological in its intent, as its deliberate pace and exquisitely composed imagery connote the exoticism that National Geographic trafficked for decades. Equally easy would be to assume a mild exercise in the polemic, decrying the impending loss of this Eden’s sanctuary as the invaders are quite literally at the frontier.

Rocha has been to Cannes multiple times, winning the l’Œil d’Or for Cinema Novo back in 2016, while his co-director Carneiro Da Cunha is an expert on Amazonian communities. Their combined experience avoids the obvious pitfalls – overt exoticism, romanticization of the isolation, etc. – and instead focuses on listening to Kopenawa’s well-argued pleas as much as providing audiences with a vicarious visit to the region.

The central narrative, or at least the film’s focus, revolves around the preparations for a reahu, a funeral service for one of Kopenawa’s relatives that sees disparate members of the greater community gather for the occasion. In voiceover narration, he patiently explains the process of burning of the body and possessions of the departed, from bananas to hammock and weaponry, all serving as a mode to return that which was used to a naturalistic state. This exercise both remembers the past but also destroys it to make room for a future. The ceremony gives the film’s title its impact with the service holding up the sky that’s falling and protecting those beneath it.

Much of the film is spent on witnessing the preparation, from the collection of bananas or plantains, to the late-night cooking sessions. This is mixed with urgent radio messages from afar, contemporary “outsider” technology such as CB radios used to warn of the incursion by the outsiders (the nape). These seemingly futile reports simply document the inevitable rather than stymy what’s to come.

At one powerful moment in the film, Davi turns his gaze to the filmmakers themselves, challenging their own role in telling their stories. He’s provided at length the ways that he was forced to accommodate outsiders, from cutting his hair to learning their language, all to share his message directly. The addition of these documentarians is welcome, perhaps, but not without some cutting remarks about their own culpability in the circumstances of what amounts to an invasion, and, in turn, a similar sentiment directed to audiences.

The fine line between voyeurism and genuinely amplifying the voice of those affected is hardly a unique divide in the history of documentary, but it’s refreshing when these modalities are so explicitly recognized. While the film is a warning, for sure, it nonetheless aestheticizes the Yanomami in ways that, frankly, the book simply cannot. This is the power of visual non-fiction, and Davi is right to be suspicious of what more than a century of such travelogues have traditionally demonstrated.

“When the miners arrive, the forest dies too,” Davi explains in his slow, almost tired monologue. Yet as we are within the bubble of the reahu, these overt incursions feel more distant, even if the look of fear and pain on the radio operator’s face says more about the serious jeopardy to the community that’s being threatened than could any collection of words. This is, in the end, a film about a precarious balance, lifting up the threatening sky to allow one to keep breathing, just as one keeps outsiders at bay, save for these few invited elements, in order to continue to thrive as a community and a culture.

Told with the quiet and deliberate pace of its subject and narrator, The Falling Sky does justice to Kopenawa’s ideas at the forefront, with the feast of stunning visuals buttressing these comments and considerations as part of a whole. It may be easy to overlook the sense of rage, exhaustion, and grief that plays throughout in favour of the beauty that appears onscreen. This would, of course, overlook the fundamental act of funereal gathering: a mourning not just for one person, perhaps, but for what’s to come as the world continues to shrink for these resilient people.

The Falling Sky premiered at the 2024 Cannes Director’s Fortnight.

Jason Gorber is a film journalist and member of the Toronto Film Critics Association. He is the Managing Editor/Chief Critic at and a regular contributor for POV Magazine, and CBC Radio. His has written for Slashfilm, Esquire, The Toronto Star, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, Screen Anarchy, HighDefDigest, Birth.Movies.Death, IndieWire and more. He has appeared on CTV NewsChannel, CP24, and many other broadcasters. He has been a jury member at the Reykjavik International Film Festival, Calgary Underground Film Festival, RiverRun Film Festival, TIFF Canada's Top 10, Reel Asian and Fantasia's New Flesh Award. Jason has been a Tomatometer-approved critic for over 20 years.

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