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This article was published 25/8/2018 (824 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

OK, I know we are all watching movies on our TVs and our computers. On our phones, for Pete’s sake.

But there are films that plead with us to go to the theatre and sit in the dark and stare at a big screen. Cielo, a visually rapturous look at the night sky, is one of them.

Canadian documentarian Alison McAlpine looks up, way up, but she’s also rooted in the ground, specifically in the profoundly beautiful landscape of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. With its dry air, high altitude and lack of light pollution, the Atacama is one of the best places on Earth to watch the stars. "How can a human look up and not be amazed?" asks one interview subject.

Slow and meditative, Cielo offers vertiginous time-lapse photography of the rotating Milky Way, as well as special-effects sequences that recreate astronomical events. There is spectacular drone footage of the almost lunar desert plateaus and of massive, ancient petroglyphs. The soundscape is quiet and subtle, sometimes just the noise of cracking bonfires and moving water.

McAlpine also explores the night sky through the eyes of the people who are watching it down here on Earth. She speaks with physicists and astronomers, who are crunching hard data while also reflecting on big spiritual and moral issues. Recognizing the miraculous rarity of our life on this miniscule point within a vast universe ought to change the way we think, according to one scientist. "Shouldn’t we treat each other better?" she asks.

Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert offers some of the best views of the Milky Way thanks to its lack of light pollution, dry air and high altitude. (Second Sight Pictures)</p>

Northern Chile’s Atacama Desert offers some of the best views of the Milky Way thanks to its lack of light pollution, dry air and high altitude. (Second Sight Pictures)

McAlpine talks to a hopeful ufologist, who is searching for evidence of extraterrestrial life in his photos, and introduces an Indigenous elder, who dances and sings and sees in the stars the spirits of those who have gone before him. She also talks with people who live on the land — algae-gatherers, miners, cowboys.

All of these subjects are wrestling, in their own ways, with questions that have occurred across cultures and through millennia, questions that arise from the simple experience of lying on your back and looking up: why are we here? What is our place and purpose? Are we alone?

Thinking so much on the infinite and the eternal, McAlpine sometimes falls into fuzziness.

While Cielo features extraordinary visual images and some fascinating human moments, it lacks the narrative shape of a film like Patricio Guzman’s 2011 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, which connected Atacama astronomers and their search for origins with the buried history of the murderous Pinochet regime.

And McAlpine’s voice-over narrative can be evocative and poetic, but occasionally is intrusive. Sometimes she speaks about the power of silence when actual silence would be better.

alison.gillmor@freepress.mb.ca

This giant telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert can give you a close-up look at the desert’s sky. (Second Sight Pictures)</p></p>

This giant telescope in Chile’s Atacama Desert can give you a close-up look at the desert’s sky. (Second Sight Pictures)

Alison Gillmor

Alison Gillmor
Writer

Studying at the University of Winnipeg and later Toronto’s York University, Alison Gillmor planned to become an art historian. She ended up catching the journalism bug when she started as visual arts reviewer at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.

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