The sky's the thing in metaphysically inclined Cielo

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      A documentary by Alison McAlpine. In English and Spanish, with English subtitles. Rating unavailable

      The sky is such a big subject, it’s almost too amniotic for most filmmakers to utilize as anything more than visual atmosphere. Canadian filmmaker Alison McAlpine moves the heavens into the foreground for Cielo, a prolonged meditation on our ambivalent relationship with the stars.

      The talented writer-director, who has a background in poetics, finds herself in Chile’s Atacama Desert, a spectacularly dry plateau west of the Andes, just before that scraggy strip of a country meets the Pacific Ocean. Ten thousand feet high in places, it’s the perfect spot for a complex of high-tech observatories, free from “the curse of clouds”, as she puts it, and home to the prosaically named Very Large Telescope. The director spends time with scientists there, especially with Spanish-born astrophysicist Mercedes López, who analyzes mathematical data to hunt for new planets.

      The government has since built a major road near one of the sites, creating the illumination issues McAlpine complains about in her off-screen ruminations. No such problem bothers the decidedly off-grid folks dotting this vast desert moonscape, whom she interviews on their makeshift home turfs. As folkloric analogues to academics with their heads in the heavens, there’s a UFO tracker, local scavengers, and an Indigenous storyteller who pulls together ancient creation myths for the scattered remnants of the Chinchorro people, there for thousands of years before the Spaniards arrived.

      It’s interesting stuff, if slightly soporific at times, mostly thanks to the director’s leisurely interjections in English. With the film clocking in at 75 minutes, however, this isn’t a real deficit. Similar material was handled more authoritatively by Chilean master Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 Nostalgia for the Light, which contrasted astronomical star-searching with the history of the Atacama where, not long ago, Pinochet’s troops tortured and “disappeared” literally countless dissidents and random citizens caught up in fascist hysteria.

      McAlpine eschews the political context, sticking to the metaphysical. She’s a fan of Terrence Malick’s cosmic side, and alongside superbly resourceful cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta—who shot Gloria and A Fantastic Woman—creates celestial images to rival those in The Tree of Life. The movie makes you feel small, but in a good way. As someone says early on, “An ant never fathoms that it lives on a planet.”