Saturday 14 July 2012


(Patricio Guzmán, 2010) At first, it's easy to be skeptical about the analogies Patricio Guzmán draws in Nostalgia for the Light. This film essay takes on the seemingly disparate subjects of astronomy and the horrors of the Pinochet era in Chilean history. It suggests that the astronomers searching for the key to the existence of the universe in the observatories of the Atacama desert - the driest place on earth, but also one which gives them, and Guzmán's camera, incredibly clear images of the spinning cosmos - have something in common with the mothers and sisters of the "disappeared" political prisoners from Pinochet's Chile, still out digging in the arid ground of the Atacama for the bones of their loved ones. But Guzmán is so delicate in his poetry and so gentle in his thesis, layering his ideas slowly atop one another, that his film is utterly persuasive. Not only that; it is also luminously beautiful and extremely moving. Guzmán begins on a little personal note; describing his boyhood love of the stars in an isolated, innocent Chile, then moving on to touch upon his pride in the "revolution" which occurred later (presumably in reference to the Socialist era under Salvador Allende, subject of another Guzmán film) and which was ended by the coup which led to the dictatorship of General August Pinochet. The slow build to his central idea is crucial; the quiet, reasonable mournfulness of his narration tying in beautifully with Guzmán's fine imagery - unlike many documentary filmmakers, he has a real eye for a shot and a sense of rhythm in his editing - is almost hypnotic. He talks about the Atacama as an elemental place while his camera underlines it's alien immensity. His interview subjects - an Astronomer, then an archeologist - discuss the parallels between their professions, both digging through the past in search of a deeper truth. Here Guzmán allows his cosmic vision to become even more expansive, as the astronomer discusses the impossibility of the present, and the micro-fractional gaps between sensation and conscious thought. Then Guzmán moves onto the darker side of the Atacama, and how Chile has an upsetting reluctance to tackle the negative aspects of its history. His next interviewee is a survivor of one of Pinochet's concentration camps. From here Guzmán steadily allows more emotion into his film. Visually he contrasts shots of mummified human remains with views of constellations and galaxies, the grain of a human skull cut in between shots of the surface of the moon. He interviews the women who dig in the desert, and their bravery and hope are profoundly moving, especially when set against the shots of mass graves and the closing wall of faces of the dead. Finally he interviews an astronomer whose parents are among the disappeared, brought up by her Grandparents and given a love of stargazing by her Grandfather, and her life and spirit inject a note of optimism into the film. Not that it is a depressing experience; on the contrary, the articulate, completely human subjects Guzmán draws out of themselves all provide positive images of Chile and its people, and there is an odd universality to these subjects; Guzmán is examining mortality and our search for answers as much as anything, just locating his essay in a uniquely Chilean context. In other hands, such a subject might have been grim, or dull, or pretentious. But Guzmán is simply a masterful filmmaker - his epic documentary The Battle of Chile is a magnificent must-see - and he makes Nostalgia for the Light a film unlike any other; visionary, sublime and compelling from start to finish.

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