Documentary Releases: Cielo (2017) - Reviewed

The Atacama Desert in Chile, among the driest deserts on the planet Earth, remains a place of awe and wonderment for astronomers and archeologists for its consistent absence of cloud cover or pollution.  Considered one of the best spots in the world to make astronomical observations, the region which became the subject of the 2010 documentary film Nostalgia for the Light once more features prominently in writer-producer-director Alison McApline’s debut documentary film Cielo 

Unlike the politically charged Nostalgia for the Light which addressed the country’s past with human rights violations, McAlpine’s collection of testimonies from astronomers and desert inhabitants is more about the aura of the unfettered night sky.  Told through on-camera interviews with scientists and residents coupled with voiceover musings from the director about her own rite-of-passage in experiencing the night skies of the Atacama Desert, Cielo is a bit nebulous in its goals but contains so many astonishing crystal-clear vistas of the Milky Way thanks to stunning cinematography by Benjamin Echazarreta we’re too enthralled to really notice.

Although neither we nor the film’s omniscient voiceover narrator/réalisateur are quite sure of what Cielo sets out to do as a documentary, as a viewing experience the film is an evocative, dreamy watch with a near silent soundscape peppered with occasional ambient guitar strumming by Philippe Lauzier.  Much like the time lapse photography of the desert sections in Ron Fricke’s lyrical, meditative documentary Baraka, many scenes of the celestial galactic ocean are presented completely quiet with only the glistening stars as our visual guide. 

Cielo soars as a purely cinematic audiovisual experience but stumbles structurally with the director’s own free admission she didn’t know what the journey to the Atacama Desert would bring.  Jumping abruptly from the sterile superstructure of the Paranal Observatory and La Silla Observatory to the squalid impoverished slums lived in by algae collectors, Cielo is something of a smorgasbord narratively, unfolding as a smattering of vignettes linked by their connection to the Desert.  Many of the testimonies, unfortunately, don’t amount to much more than anecdotal impressions the wonderment of the unfettered night skies rather than providing concrete evidence to learn from. 

Yes, Cielo is an admirable, well-intentioned effort shedding light on arguably the world’s greatest spot for star gazing but is unfortunately light on facts and high on feelings.  The imagery is glorious enough to print out in a deluxe coffee table book yet McAlpine’s film doesn’t do much more than recommend the Atacama Desert as a ‘really cool place to visit’.  

It doesn’t help that in her first feature, Cielo at times feels very like starter-pack Werner Herzog with the far more compelling and successful nonlinear nature documentaries Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Encounters at the End of the World coming to mind.  Overall if you sit back and shut your mind off before soaking in the stunning nighttime vistas of the heavens, you’ll be enthralled by Cielo.  As for myself, I enjoyed looking at it but the film’s masterful imagery is unfortunately undermined by a student filmmaker who wants to be Herzog but lacks his wisdom.

- Andrew Kotwicki