Canadian documentarian Alison McAlpine’s film Cielo heads to the Chilean desert to capture some of the most stunning images of starry night skies ever projected onto the big screen. The images contained within Cielo are cosmically magnificent, but also profoundly singular. On her travels through the Atacama Desert, McAlpine and her crew capture the ethereal cosmos high above our heads from angles that can only be achieved from this specific, geographic location; one that most viewers will likely never get a chance to experience firsthand in their lifetimes. It’s also a film that’s lackadaisically trying to ask bigger questions about humankind’s place in the seemingly endless universe, but Cielo works best when viewed as a uniquely celestial travelogue.
Prompted by her own fascination with the stars and the enormous blankets and belts of them that run throughout the universe, McAlpine ventures to one of the greatest places on Earth to stargaze. On her journeys throughout the Atacama, McAlpine stops to talk to astronomers and locals alike and asks them about their relationship to the stars. Some are driven by tradition and mythologies passed down through generations. Some are driven by primal, natural instincts. Some seek to understand our universe better, and others want to reach for the planets and solar systems that lie just beyond our current scientific reaches. Some find peace and promise in the universe, while for others (including McAlpine, who narrates) the stars serve as a constant reminder that we’re infinitesimally small specks in a seemingly endless universe.
Assisted enormously by Chilean cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta (who previously shot Sebastián Lelio’s A Fantastic Woman and Gloria), McAlpine’s Cielo effectively captures the enormity of existence and a natural world that extends far beyond our terrestrial lives. Even the most scientific minds interviewed throughout Cielo admit that there’s something transcendental about casting one’s eyes towards the sky and marvelling at the seemingly chaotic dance that plays out in the greater universe. These voices are given just as much credence as some of the locals who explain the cultural and religious significance of these stars, and when put together with the stunning time lapse images captured by Echazarreta and McAlpine, Cielo allows viewers to get lost in the moment and draw their own conclusions.
There isn’t an ugly, curious, or odd frame to be found in Cielo, but there are many moments in interviews and conversations when McAlpine’s work feels forced rather than organic. There are a few sequences where McAlpine inserts herself into other people’s thoughts about the stars, and while her musings and opinions are valid, they’re nowhere near as fascinating as the people she’s chosen to profile. Moments where McAlpine narrates her own feelings about her curiosities fare better, but are still unable to match the poetic nature of her images. Everyone waxes poetic about what they see in the stars (including an actual poet), but some are better at articulating their emotions than others. There are altogether too many interview segments that feel included in a bid to pad things out to a feature length running time. None of these moments – save for one cringe-worthy bit late in the film where McAlpine stops a celebratory toast among some scientists to ask a question none of them want to answer – are particularly bad or distracting, but given the high quality of the visuals contained within Cielo, some paring back would help to further underline the documentary’s naturally occurring themes.
The almost silent, wordless moments of Cielo work best, allowing viewers plenty of time and space on the screen to form their own thoughts and narratives in their heads. As an admitted city dweller, McAlpine knows the joy and grandeur of seeing a sky free of light pollution and urban sprawl, and the filmmaker is clearly making the most of her opportunities. She wants to share the wonder of viewing the stars from the desert with the world, and hopefully make them curious about the universe around them. Although McAlpine’s narration and her interview subjects have their own thoughts about our place in the galaxy, no one ever puts words into the mouths of the viewer. McAlpine understands that showing is always more powerful than telling or steering the audience in any specific direction. It’s admirable that Cielo wants to include scientific, anthropological, and historical perspectives, but none of them equal the visceral pleasures and intellectual payoffs that the images themselves provide.
If you can’t drop everything and go to the Chilean desert, the best moments of Cielo are a nice substitute. It’s a simple enough film, but sometimes simplicity is the key to sparking thought and imagination. City folk likely can’t answer the question “what’s your favourite star?,” but with McAlpine’s prodding and Cielo’s gorgeous imagery, hopefully more people will be inspired to scour the skies with open eyes and hearts filled to bursting.
Cielo opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and Forum Cinemas in Montreal on Friday, August 10, 2018. It opens at Bytowne Theatre in Ottawa on Wednesday, August 15, at Vancity in Vancouver on Friday, August 17, Winnipeg Cinematheque on August 25, and Metro in Edmonton on August 31.
Check out the trailer for Cielo: