Cielo: The desert sky as backdrop makes for a profound contemplative experience

By Jim Slotek

Rating: A

City-dwellers may go their entire lives without realizing that the greatest movie screen of all is above their heads, telling billions of stories.

That the night-lit veil was briefly lifted from our eyes during the blackout of the entire East Coast in 2003 is noted in passing in Cielo (Spanish for “heaven”), Canadian director/writer and sometime poet Alison McAlpine’s contemplative and lyrical documentary about the skies over Chile’s Atacama Desert.

 Las Campinas planet-hunting observatory in the profoundly moving sky-doc Cielo

Las Campinas planet-hunting observatory in the profoundly moving sky-doc Cielo

At a leisurely 78 minutes, Cielo introduces us to a range of people who live with these brilliant, vibrant skies each night – the planet-hunting scientists at two different observatories (one of whom, Nestor Espinoza, is so enthusiastic about the sky, he can hardly control his thoughts, while his equally-dedicated colleague, Mercedes Lopez rolls her eyes and gently ridicules his excitement). At a French-Speaking Euro-observatory, we meet Stephane Udry, another world-famous planet-hunter who has found his research paradise in the Chilean desert.

The astonomers are the scientifically-inclined left-brain of this sky-conscious desert, people who train instruments on our stellar neighbours that can trace the merest fluctuation in starlight to the presence of an orbiting planet.

We meet other people who scrape a living off this arid landscape who also have their own relationship with the sky. Some of the locals sustain themselves harvesting algae from the nearby Pacific Coast, and share fanciful thoughts about the constellations, the Milky Way and the Magellanic Clouds. A lone photographer, with a digital camera seemingly unsuited to night shoots, claims to have photos of UFOs (director McAlpine would never be such a killjoy as to note that the “flying saucers” look like common photographic flares).

Storyteller Roberto Garcia claims to fly around the stars, figuratively at least, and regales with indigenous-tinged fables involving the gods in the sky and the dissemination of life. An independent gold miner named Raul has his own interpretation of the tableau above.

And then, always, there is the star of the show. McAlpine uses time-lapse photography on the “still” sky, in the weeks before and after a full moon, to give us a sense of its actual movement and pulsation.

Her words and others give context to the incubator of life itself that is the heavens above us. But Cielo is mainly a movie to be seen. If you ever indeed have escaped the prison of light with which we surround ourselves, you know that you can get lost staring at a bright, starlit night with its texturized sky.

If you don’t find that sky in the real world this summer, Cielo is as close as you’ll get to experiencing it indoors.

Cielo. Directed by Alison McAlpine. Starring Mercedes Lopez, Roberto Garcia, Stephane Udry. Opens Friday at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.