The Sky’s Eternal Mysteries
Chile’s Atacama desert is the perfect place to study the stars, the lack of light pollution allows for a view of the heavens in all their magnificent glory. Director Alison McAlpine and her cinematographer Benjamin Echazarreta let us linger on it. Their time lapse photography lets us admire the dance of the stars or just appreciate the immensity of blue sky in the daytime.
McAlpine is not content for this to simply be a nature documentary, however, looking for deeper connections between the desert sky and those who study, and live and work in tandem with it. She talks to astronomers, researchers, miners and others about their sense of connection to the cosmos. While some of these interactions are fascinating – such as a woman trying to explain the concept of gravity to her husband or a man recounting a desert myth – these segments are hit and miss. McAlpine is a bit too eager for us experience the same sense of joy that she over-editorializes, offering voice-over observations that are often distracting.
Although the night sky is, indeed, awe-inspiring, McAlpine’s never really shines as brightly she wants it to. The Atacama Desert in Northern Chile has no pollution, smog, and light that makes the sky above most cities difficult to observe in its full glory. “Cielo” views the South American plateau as a place where “the more harmful effects of modernization have yet to compromise a picturesque skyline that obsesses locals and tourists alike.” Here is a documentary with time-lapse photography, interviews, and poetic voiceover with visual sequences that are offset with less developed material revolving around the people who live and work in the Atacama Desert, from astronomers to farmers.
McAlpine structures her film around different groups of people, all of whom have some connection to the sky (or heaven as the word is often defined). A pair of astronomers explain their intense sensorial relationship with the stars, with one claiming that “the stars are conversing,” a personification that indicates how attuned these scientists are to every sound that comes out of the sky. McAlpine constructs the scientists’ act of looking and listening as being related to voyeurism, with the stars made into obscure objects of desire possessing a life and language of their own. The sky is the basis for a love affair that can’t be had outside the desert’s confines. The film uses the Atacama Desert as opposite of cityscapes that have become tarnished with skyscrapers and poisoned air. McAlpine complements the celestial obsessions of her subjects with sequences of time-lapse photography that turn the sky into a mighty canvas, with color and movement captured as if from a classical painting. While the footage is remarkable from a scientific perspective, it’s also the kind of approach to the passage of time in nature that’s been popular in documentaries for many years.
Cielo‘s most visually striking sequence involves an observation tower labeled “the Golem” by the scientists working within it. It is equipped with computer technology that can “see an eclipse right away.” However, the film fails to demonstrate sufficient variety in other ways and doesn’t follow-through.