Cielo review – love letter to the desert’s starry skies

Alison McAlpine’s documentary draws out tales from locals and astronomers to evoke the magic and mystery of Chile’s stargazing hotspot

Cielo means “sky” in Spanish, and “heaven”, too. And it’s with a sense of humbled wonder at the immense mystery of it all that the Canadian film-maker Alison McAlpine casts her camera upwards in this beautiful documentary about the night sky. It’s filmed at the stargazing hotspot of Chile’s Atacama desert, where there is virtually no light pollution; the heavens appear to be within touching distance – as if a seam in the sky has been unpicked and the stars tumble out like diamonds.

For those of us who live in urban areas, we look up from noisy streets and bright city lights to the vast emptiness of the sky. In Atacama, it’s the reverse; the sky seems more alive than the earth – a bare, Martian landscape of rock and sand. With her cinematographer, Benjamín Echazarreta, McAlpine shoots some astonishing time-lapse photography, which features alongside interviews with astronomers at the European observatories in the desert and locals who eke out a living somehow. One man is a UFO photographer; he thinks that humans are more evil than the aliens and, knowing this, the aliens don’t bother to land.

This is a mellow, meandering film and, personally, I would have found a couple of explainers and captions to introduce the stargazers useful. The interviews with the astronomers are terrific; one of them explains that she’s not spiritual, and when she looks into the sky it’s the Earth she’s thinking about, how insignificant we humans are, how tiny in the universe, like ants. A local man movingly explains how his daughter, before she died, pointed to one of Orion’s stars and told him to remember her by it. On the other hand, the score of wind instruments and blippy electronic noises gives it a generic cine-essay feel, and McAlpine’s voiceover of poetic musings doesn’t help. At times this does feel like a bit of an unwitting test of the audience’s attention span.

• Cielo is available on 23 April on True Story.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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