Mettler uses the northern lights as an excuse to wax philosophical about the nature of recorded reality, and to travel to a farflug outpost of humanity to interview people who choose to live in such desolate surroundings. Mettler and his crew travel in the dead of winter to the small Canadian town of Churchill, Manitoba (pop. 923), 3000 miles northwest of Toronto, reachable from the south only via the Hudson Bay Railway. Along the way to Churchill, and throughout his stay, Mettler often provides droning narration over the visual image. His narration begins closely linked to the images, but quickly wanders toward fanciful philosophical musings.
These musings go over best when not considered too closely. Here for example, is a monologue Mettler thinks sufficiently important to deliver twice in the documentary:
We live in a time where things do not seem to exist if they are not contained as an image, but if you look into this darkness you may see the lights of your retina; not unlike the northern lights, not unlike the movements of thought, not unlike a shapeless accumulation of everything we have ever seen.
This soliloquy, like many Mettler offers, sounds deeply meaningful when you allow it to wash over you as you take in the accompanying visuals, but it simply cannot hold up to clear-headed scrutiny. Mettler seems to be saying something about the nature of recorded reality, but whatever it is appears to be guided more by poetry than logic.
The film crew's arrival in Churchill coincides with a blizzard that thwarts their efforts to record the northern lights. Whether this is coincidence or contrivance is a good question, but either way, Mettler uses the time to document the residents of Churchill, and what an odd lot they are. From the hotel owner who shoots and then crowbars open a hole in the hotel room wall to demonstrate how quickly a room can be filled with snow during a horizontally-driving snowstorm (not as quickly as you might guess), to the hunter that talks about how hard it is to control his bloodlust, to the Inuit who suffers extreme frostbite from passing out drunk in the snow, everyone seems to be mentally destabilized by the cold, darkness, and isolation of the northern Canadian winter.
When the skies clear enough to record the northern lights, they are filtered through time-lapsed footage and placed in the background with isolated houses to the fore. If Picture of Light poses some philosophically-minded question about whether film provides an inferior simulacra often mistaken for reality, Mettler has his thumb thickly pressing the scales. These images are flat and non-engaging. The recorded reality doesn't measure up, and probably isn't intended to.
The screener provided for review was a DVD-R with a menu that looks like it was meant to be a stand in pending completion of a final commercial product. I do not know whether the product provided to retailers looks any more professional, but given that this DVD was released last August and nothing better was sent for review, it's doubtful.