Berlin Review: Patricio Guzmán’s ‘The Pearl Button’ is a Brilliant Form of Documentary Art

Berlin Review: Patricio Guzmán's 'The Pearl Button' is a Brilliant Form of Documentary Art

Following his acclaimed 2010 documentary "Nostalgia For the Light," legendary Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán delivers an equally stunning achievement with "The Pearl Button." Whereas "Nostalgia" vividly explored Chile’s national heritage through its distinctive skies and deserts, "The Pearl Button" takes water as its central metaphor through which flows a stream of historical recollections and poetic reflections, rendered with breathtaking visual clarity.

Guzman is hands down the most important director in Chilean cinematic history, having captured the nation’s most catastrophic upheaval in his epic documentary "The Battle of Chile." In recent years he has eased gracefully into a more meditative, essayistic mode of non-fiction aided by visually splendid production values, exemplified by the European Film Award winner "Nostalgia for the Light." He follows that model using stunning high res imaging to explore the significance of water as a portal to plumbing the depths of Chilean history and culture.

As stated early in the film, Chile is a country exposed to water, with one of the longest oceanic coastlines of any nation; but its tragedies have often involved conflicts over what little arable land it has amidst its deserts and mountain ranges. As if to provide an object lesson in how his nation should direct its attention, Guzman dives into a deep investigation of the significance of water, and emerges with a lucid stream of lamentations and questions concerning his nation’s tragic history.

Guzman opens his film with breathtaking shots of Chile’s famous Patagonian glaciers, ice floes that have been around for tens of thousands of years in a constant cycle of destruction and regeneration. A more imperiled situation faces the surviving members of several native "water tribes" who thrived along Chilean waterways for thousands of years. Decimated by European colonization, only 20 surviving members remain to maintain their ancestral customs and language.

Their genocide is juxtaposed by the more recent tragedy of Pinochet dictatorship of the 1970s, when thousands of political prisoners were murdered or disappeared, many of whose bodies were dumped into the sea. Using journalistic accounts of these murders, Guzman uses a human dummy to meticulously re-enact how these mass sea burials were conducted, bringing a lost history back to life in vivid, sobering form.

Guzman’s unique gift lies in his ability to weave together multiple modes of documentary: the picturesque, the political and the poetic. Using state of the art HD lensing, he can dazzle the viewer with the sheer spectacle of a drop of water quivering in slow motion, as a small universe of particles swirls within its transparent body. He can connect his cosmic vision to tragic historical stories such as that of Jeremy Button, a water native who was abducted by British colonists and shipped to England to be "civilized." As Guzman puts it, in an instant Button "traveled from the Stone Age to the Industrial Revolution," provoking us to ask how we might experience such a shock to our own reality.

The film aspires to nothing less than to provide such epiphanies,
often through nothing more than simple, inspired montage. Breathtakingly bizarre portraits of native peoples decked in elaborate body paint and masks stretch our ability to recognize the human, before these figures dissolve uncannily into spectral shots of galaxies, captured by state-of-the-art Chilean planetariums prized for their unmatched vantage points for viewing the universe. Guzman is both delighted and skeptical of these technologically advanced tools for understanding the universe: a commenter notes that these high-tech images of outer space bring us no closer to the universe than what the natives seemed to understand through their intuition.

Such moments as this exemplify Guzman’s combination of lyrical wisdom and skillful juxtaposition of the many thematic streams he manages to tie together. As such, this is a masterful instance of the free-flowing essayistic mode that’s becoming increasingly prevalent in certain types of contemporary documentary. "The Pearl Button" is a vivid, essential portal to understanding not only the heritage of a nation, but also the art of nonfiction cinema.

Grade: A

"The Pearl Button" premiered last week at the Berlin International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.

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