RIDM 2017 Review of documentary film Cielo

The documentary film Cielo takes us to Chile’s Atacama Desert where the stars shine bright and clear.

The documentary film Cielo is set in the Atacama Desert of Chile. I put Cielo on my “must-see list” after seeing extracts from the film at the press conference for Montreal’s RIDM film festival.

The film is full of absolutely stunning images of the desert, and night skies full of more stars than you could imagine. And the Milky Way! Just stunning! In time-lapse sequences, the heavens seem to be rotating. The occasional shooting star zips by.

The Atacama desert is one of the driest places on earth. That dryness, the desert’s high altitude, and the lack of air pollution and light pollution make it an excellent spot for scientific star gazing and there are several observatories there. There are traditional ones, with big domes and huge telescopes, along with the ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array). That is a single telescope of revolutionary design, composed of 66 high precision antennas located on the Chajnantor plateau, 5,000 meters altitude in northern Chile.” Those antennas look a lot like satellite dishes. When they swivel in time-lapse photography they also look like a field full of disembodied ears. Very weird!

Canadian director Alison McAlpine takes us inside a traditional observatory as the dome opes and the telescope is moved into position (cue metallic noises); she talks to astronomers and to people who live in ramshackle dwellings in the desert. They share some local lore, banter about gravity, etc. Because the desert is so inhospitable, I wondered how they managed to survive there. How far do they have to travel for food, etc? One man is a miner, others are described as algae gatherers in the credits and press kit, while others are described as cowboys. I saw their animals so briefly I could not tell if they were goats, llamas or vicuña. From previous films and reading I did not think there would be anything for those animals to eat, but apparently there are some very scrubby grasses. And maybe these animals live in the edge of the desert?

There is additional astounding imagery of stars and galaxies that I thought was shot through telescopes, but the press kit revealed that most of that footage is really “organic effects” of the kind seen in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.

Now for some gentle criticism. Cielo is well worth seeing for the images, but I feel that director McAlpine’s narration does not do it any favours. It might be intrusive no matter what, but because  she is addressing the stars, rather than simply sharing them with us, I felt further removed from the film. Hearing her say “Now I can’t stop watching you, I’m trying to understand your crazy beauty,” felt weird, like eavesdropping, maybe.

Atacama Desert, astronomy, voice overs – those ingredients might remind you of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia For the Light.) While Cielo is worth watching, it does not approach the level of that masterpiece. Guzman’s narration sounded like poetry, in Spanish and in translation, even when he was talking about the atrocities of the Pinochet era. His film juxtaposed the beauty of the stars, the mysteries of the universe with the evil of the dictatorship and the grief of the bereaved who were still searching the desert for the bodies of their murdered loved ones. You can buy or rent Nostalgia for the Light on iTunes (and elsewhere, I imagine). And you really should! Here is a link to the review of Nostalgia for the Light I wrote for the Montreal Gazette in 2011.

CIELO, directed by Alison McAlpine
Country : Quebec, Chile
Year : 2017
V.O : Spanish, English, French
Subtitles : English And French
Duration : 78 min
Cinematography : Benjamín Echazarreta
Editing : Andrea Chignoli
Production : Carmen Garcia, Paola Castillo, Alison McAlpine
Music : Philippe Lauzier

Cielo will be shown on Monday, Nov. 13 at 5:45 pm at
Cinéma du Parc 3 (the printed schedule says 6 p.m.)

Cielo is part of RIDM (Rencontres internationales du documentaire de Montréal) runs until Sunday, Nov. 19, 2017.
Visit the RIDM web site at RIDM.ca for more information.

(I found some interesting web sites while doing research for this review. I’ll add them later. Please come back to see them!

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