The experimental documentary “Cielo,” directed by Canadian Alison McAlpine with cinematography by “A Fantastic Woman’s” Benjamin Echazarreta, humbly marvels at the vastness of the night sky over the Atacama Desert in Chile. The region is so remote, so removed from city lights, it makes Borrego Springs look like Las Vegas, revealing a multitude of stars very few people ever see with the naked eye.
Balancing science, folklore and spirituality, the film blends kaleidoscopic night shots, time-lapses and “organic effects” with observational portraits of desert residents, algae collectors, miners and cowboys, alongside scientists and “planet hunters” working the giant telescopes at Las Campanas, La Silla and Paranal observatories.
It should come as no surprise that McAlpine has a background in poetry. The sky is a naturally lyrical subject and the film is full of contemplative shots, displaying a rich visual language. It’s structured in a way that punctuates the stanza-like, expressionistic sketches with a refrain of dreamlike imagery. McAlpine narrates the film in English, while interviewing her subjects in Spanish and French, adding a linguistic flourish.
Nontraditional in its approach to narrative, the film leaves us wanting to know more about the desert’s inhabitants. We are left with more questions than answers as McAlpine chooses not to identify her subjects until the end credits, perhaps echoing one scientist’s observation on the sky’s immensity and our own comparable insignificance.
A curious film in multiple ways, “Cielo” does not always achieve its lofty ambitions of transcendence. However, accompanied by the eerie silence of the desert and the plaintive wail of Philippe Lauzier’s mournful score, McAlpine’s visuals transport the viewer to a state of reflection while reminding us of the sublime beauty of the space above.
In Spanish, English and French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 18 minutes
Playing: Starts Aug. 24, Ahrya Fine Arts, Beverly Hills