Film Review: Cielo

A dreamy documentary about the sky, notable for its poetic images.
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Before becoming a filmmaker, Alison McAlpine was a poet. Nothing is likely to surprise a viewer of Cielo less than this fact about the documentary’s director, writer and producer. With its meditative, long-lingering images of the sky above Chile’s Atacama Desert and of the desert itself, and McAlpine’s voiceover, which in dreamy tones asks us to reflect upon the firmament in a manner that sometimes made me feel like a high-schooler squirming with suppressed mirth and uneasy fascination when the art teacher with crazy hair and swinging beads began to speak (The sky asks us many questions—but the question is: Which question will you ask it?), Cielo is the very definition of a tone poem.

As McAlpine says, the story of Cielo, such as it is, is “more associative than logical.” Thus, we move from two kindly astronomers working in an observatory in the Atacama Desert to a married pair of algae collectors living in a tumbledown house amid the tumbleweeds, joyfully argumentative and discursive. We hear from a young man who tells us about his visions of a little girl that appeared before him in the desert one day and followed him for years as, he believes, his angel descended from the sky. A desert miner recites his poetry for us. A storyteller recounts a myth about the origins of the world’s flora. A UFO photographer shows us his evidence of extraterrestrial life, a Frenchman explains his job as a planet hunter, and a fellow planet hunter at La Silla Observatory sings for us while his colleagues go about their stargazing work.

It’s all quite lovely. If you’re the sort of person who uses the word “lovely” or can find its application in daily life. But the true stars of the film—terrible pun intended—are McAlpine’s images of the sky. She employed time-lapse photography but slowed the technique way, way down, to fit her film’s languorous rhythm. The results are several moments of frank beauty we are given plenty of time to savor. It’s very nice.

At the end of Cielo, I found myself a little to my own surprise wishing I could watch the movie over again, on my own, in my own secluded and dark space, even if that meant watching it on a small laptop screen, which is really not the way such a sweepingly visual film should be viewed. Because throughout the screening I attended, the meditative state the documentary was clearly asking you to enter was interrupted again and again by restless shuffling and sighs and grunts from the audience. It may have been I was not alone in feeling McAlpine’s voiceover was too “out there,” or that the patient pacing of her movie was making its audience of harried New Yorkers feel unduly impatient. The shufflers made a beeline for the exit as soon as the credits began to roll.

I was not as annoyed by the hippy-dippiness of it all because the artistry of Cielo is so unquestionably high. But the malcontents in the audience may have had a point. Cielo might have been better served if McAlpine had effaced herself more—if she had cut down her voiceovers, or even cut them altogether. Her images are so uncannily dreamy in themselves, they really need no call to dreaminess. Over and over we are asked or reminded by the filmmaker—gently, of course, always gently—to slow down or be patient or take the time to look up from the ground at the immense and mysterious expanse above us. There’s a “Let it be” sense to McAlpine’s soft exhortations, which struck me as a little ironic, since her Cielo might have garnered more of the appreciation it deserves if she herself had quieted and simply let it, the sky, be, in all the reverent glory she with the silent poetry of her camera was already showing us.