‘Cielo’ Film Review: A Poet’s Guide to the Galaxy Via Time-Lapse Views of the Chilean Sky

Karlovy Vary: Alison McAlpine’s film contemplates the sky, science and socioeconomics

Things are largely chaotic down here on Earth, which gave poet and filmmaker Alison McAlpine good reason to explore the night sky and its resonance with her spectators.

McAlpine’s film “Cielo” premiered in the documentary competition at this year’s Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, a reprieve from a section thick with Vladimir Putin’s accused corruption and how state journalists cover him.

The thing is, “Cielo” is not really a documentary. McAlpine and her cinematographer Benjamin Echazarretta (of the 2018 Best Foreign Language Oscar winner “A Fantastic Woman”) set up camp in Chile’s Atacama Desert and rolled time-lapse shots for some stunningly clear views of the heavens.

“We’ve seen so many time-lapses before and they are usually very fast, appearing like special effects or fireworks. There is no time to feel or enter the image. I wanted to reinvent time-lapses so that they rhythms and textures felt human, natural,” the director said in a statement.

Instead of a probing or technical examination like one might expect from a doc, McAlpine revels in the spiritual. The film reads more like an art installation.

There are a few characters, however, who establish a narrative (though nothing nearly as developed or rounded as the majestic time-lapses). They are desert-dwellers and scientists, all subject to McAlpine’s thesis question about the human connection to the sky.

Particularly compelling is Mercedes Lopez, a planet hunter at Las Campanas Observatory who says she prefers the practical marvel of physics to its spiritual effects. People are homeless and starving, but someone still has to do her job. Lopez also hilariously complains that the public thinks her workdays are full of nerdy wonder, but its mostly waiting for clouds to dissipate so she can actually see something.

There’s also a native Chilean storyteller named Roberto Garcia who sheds light on how space affects folklore — like an old tradition of killing a dog after someone dies, because the locals referred t0 the stars as a river and the dead needed a spirit animal to guide them across.

McAlpine is theater-trained, so you’re in for some gushy voiceovers that border on the melodramatic (she’s asked if she experiences wonder every time she gazes at the sky, and responds in the affirmative while her subjects blink awkwardly).

Her images may be a Rorschach test, but they are indelible.

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