Somewhere between a Discovery Channel special and a Koyaanisqatsi-esque head trip, you’ll find Alison McAlpine’s exquisite portrait film Cielo.
“Cielo” is Spanish for sky, but it also translates to heaven, and that’s exactly the sort of ambiguity McAlpine uses to her advantage. She opens with a sort of invocation to the cielo of the Chilean Atacama Desert, and then we meet the people living underneath it. There are travelers, cowboys, miners, and an older couple just going about their lives. Then there are the planet hunters at different observatories, some from Switzerland, others from Spain and Chile. They analyze data, they tinker with their telescopes, they sing songs about the celestial unknown. There’s also a wandering photographer looking for UFOs and a teacher retelling ancestral stories. “We are invited to a party in the sky,” he explains.
Anyone who comes to Atacama is profoundly moved by the clearness and closeness and wonder of the place. The images in the film are unmatched by any Hollywood blockbuster, but it isn’t just the awesome views of what looms above — it’s also the faces of those looking from below.
This all makes for some heavy viewing, but Cielo works in defiance of Arthur C. Clarke’s famous statement that we are either alone in the universe or we are not, and both possibilities are equally terrifying. Revealing a generosity, zeal and delight here, it suggests the cosmos may not be as cold as some think.
Directed by Alison McAlpine
Opens August 15, at Film Forum
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This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on August 15, 2018