There are numerous images of transcendent beauty in Cielo, the feature debut from Canadian filmmaker Alison McAlpine, helmer of the 2008 short Second Sight. True to its title (“cielo” is Spanish for “sky” or “heaven”), the movie spends a good portion of its running time contemplating the firmament above Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert, using time-lapse cameras (the Sony A7 and Atomos Shogun by night, the Sony FS7 by day) to create a visual symphony of the moon, stars, sun and clouds as they move through the wild blue yonder.
Seen on a big screen, these images — photographed by cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta — have a transporting power that comes close to approximating what it must be like to actually stand in Atacama, gazing up in awe. Shooting stars fly by like paint slashes on a cosmic canvas. The vapor trail from a plane acts as the sole cloud in an otherwise clear azure sky. Even the Milky Way itself rotates through the heavens with breathtaking clarity. (This latter sequence is likely one of several captured by McAlpine and Echazarreta via the organic effects process pioneered by Douglas Trumbull for Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life.)
Better in heaven than on earth.
The pictures by themselves would almost be enough, perhaps acting as companion piece to/offspring of one of Godfrey Reggio’s cinematic rhapsodies (e.g. 1982’s Koyaanisqatsi). But though the film runs a brisk 78 minutes, McAlpine has a more wide-ranging portrait in mind. Interwoven with the out-of-this-world visuals are several on-the-ground profiles of astronomers who work in Atacama, as well as other people (cowboys, miners, algae collectors) who live there year-round. McAlpine also occasionally chimes in with some voiceover observations (“the sky is more urgent than the land”) that aim for the crystallized elegance of Chris Marker, but more often come off as the too-earnest musings of a first-year grad student. They weigh the images down as opposed to complementing their at once humbling and soaring nature.
The sketches of Atacama’s residents and workers are similarly uneven. Whenever one of the astronomers is onscreen, the film becomes more visually and rhythmically prosaic, as if cowed by the intellects on display. McAlpine is much more at home with the proletarian subjects, such as an algae collector and his wife who argue, heatedly but lovingly, over the scientific basis of gravity and whether or not the Earth is flat. It’s in moments like these that Cielo seems kin to Patricio Guzman’s great Nostalgia for the Light, a documentary also set in Atacama, and one that grappled with Chile’s tragic history, specifically the atrocities of the Pinochet regime.
More often, though, McAlpine eschews the underlying politics and class divides of the region for the larger spectacle of the sky itself. The heavens, the film argues, turn everyone into a stupefied onlooker, and there’s certainly great beauty in that equalizing notion. Yet whenever Cielo returns, as it must, to Earth, you’re left wishing McAlpine had dug a little deeper into the many individuals here, who remain distinctly and defiantly themselves even as they look, star-struck, to the great beyond.
Production Companies: Second Sight Pictures, Argus Films, Errante Producciones
Director: Alison McAlpine
Writer: Alison McAlpine
Producers: Alison McAlpine, Carmen Garcia
Producer, Marketing and Distribution: Sean Farnel
Co-Producer: Paola Castillo
Cinematography: Benjamin Echazarreta
Editing: Andrea Chignoli
Composer: Phillippe Lauzier
Sound Design: Miguel Hormazabal
Venue: New York Film Festival (Spotlight on Documentary)