That Cloud Never Left begins with a bold declaration — it immediately informs the audience that it doesn’t consider itself to be a documentary. “This is a work of fiction,” the opening titles say. Director Yashaswini Raghunandan then spends the next 66 minutes presenting a hypnotic, occasionally inscrutable collage of images and sound to varying emotional effect.
The premise of That Cloud Never Left revolves around a small village in India where inhabitants make toys and tools out of recycled 35mm film from Bollywood. Other stories intertwine: One woman tries to get ahold of her husband who left town, a group of boys look for an elusive ruby, and the village eagerly anticipates a total lunar eclipse. Raghunandan uses this as a springboard to craft a montage of beautiful images and sound design that ranges from roaring to restful.
While the film does focus on the villagers at work on their craft, they are photographed and edited in frenetic, seemingly disconnected ways, often putting more emphasis on the film’s style than its characters.
This is usually effective. One particularly moving sequence juxtaposes the sounds of bamboo being cut and rattling celluloid in rhythmic fashion, almost creating a song out of the disjointed elements as the visuals of individual frames of film are superimposed on screen. The sounds oscillate and vibrate, creating a fascinating and mesmeric scene.
In some instances, however, the highly visual style falls flat and feels gimmicky. An otherwise effective and somber scene of two boys bathed in moonlight is cheapened when another boy slowly fades into the frame without explanation. The tone is further undercut when this boy abruptly vanishes one frame before the scene cuts, which seems more like an editing mistake than an artistic decision.
Still, the treatment of the premise is often riveting. The idea of giving new life to antiquated, otherwise useless film is compelling, and the execution reflects that.
“I wanted to make the film feel like a crumpled piece of paper with a wealth of stories inside of it,” Raghunandan said after the screening. This simile is a strikingly accurate summation of the film, but this isn’t always a good thing.
While That Cloud Never Left frequently imparts a joyous feeling of discovery that comes from finding meaning within that scrapped paper, there is some incoherence as well. Some of the film is garish and muddled, resembling a drawing crumpled and discarded before the ink could fully dry, the colors merging on the paper to form an uninviting brown.
Often absorbing, That Cloud Never Left remains crushingly aloof and detached from its characters. The film, while mostly beautiful, fails to be more than the sum of its parts. Raghunandan is highly skilled at using her incredible imagery and sound design to create individual moments, but the whole leaves a muted effect. As a visual poem, That Cloud Never Left soars; as a feature film, it shoots for the moon and comes up short.