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Review: Patricio Guzmán’s Thoughtful And Inspiring ‘The Pearl Button’

Review: Patricio Guzmán's Thoughtful And Inspiring 'The Pearl Button'

This is a reprint of our review from the 2015 Berlin International Film Festival.

Broadening, deepening and further illuminating the inquiries of his acclaimed "Nostalgia For The Light," Chilean director Patricio Guzmán‘s "The Pearl Button" pulled off an unusual, if not unprecedented feat when, as a documentary, it took home the Berlinale Best Screenplay award. But it’s very well-deserved, because while unscripted interviews do form a large part of this questing, curious, expansive film, what unites and elevates it is the flow of its ideas and Guzman’s scintillating narration. To essay a slightly daft comparison, in Robert Zemeckis‘ "Contact," upon first glimpsing the cosmos, Jodie Foster‘s scientist character gasps, "They should have sent a poet." If they had, it should have been Guzmán, and something like "The Pearl Button" might have been the result.

Guzmán’s poetry is not that of flowery prose or linguistic tricks, though. In fact, his clear, low voice delivers dizzying concepts and evokes powerful unseen connections so simply that even my rudimentary Spanish was often enough to be able to ignore the subtitles. Which is a bonus, because then you get to concentrate on the imagery, which is stunning throughout, from the macro (galaxies and nebulae) down to the micro (a 3000 year-old drop of water trapped inside a block of quartz). And the collision of scale and perspective that he achieves across single cuts is often thrilling, as when the radio telescopes of the Atacama Large Millimeter Array swivel around in unison, like so many Pixar lamps, to look at the sky, and then we cut to a satellite image of the curved earth seen from space — looking back.

Yet, this is not a film about science or astronomy — the story Guzman is telling is far more profoundly human than that, rooted in a deep sorrow for his country’s losses (of lives, of innocence, of native know-how, of its relationship to the ocean). While borne of Chile’s shameful colonial history, and her shameful recent past too, this is a lament that resounds anywhere that people have set aside their basic humanity, and their basic relationship to the environment that provides for them, in the name of progress—which is to say, everywhere in the whole wide world. 

In great part he tells this story through water. From the driest place on earth, those telescopes search the night sky for planets that might hold water, as comets whip past like the one that brought water to our planet first, seeding the oceans, creating the conditions that allow our species (60% water that we are) to flourish. The biggest of those oceans gives Chile its crazy, 4,000 mile-long coastline. It evaporates into the sky and falls as rain on houses with zinc roofs like the one Guzmán grew up in. It gathers and freezes into the peculiar blue icebergs of Patagonia that the native tribes knew how to negotiate before they were all but wiped out by the white conquerors. And those were men who came across that ocean bringing "civilization" which brought disease, genocide and cruelty, and a recent dictatorship that dumped between 1200 and 1400 weighted nameless bodies back into the water whence everything came.

Guzmán’s essential thesis seems to be that, in turning its back on the ocean, modern Chile lost a crucial part of its identity. But he also puts forward the extraordinary idea that the water has a memory, and that if you listen closely enough, you can hear the voices of the disappeared. A vocal musician he interviews makes that thesis manifest by insisting that, in the noise of water, you can actually separate out distinct, pure sounds — music, which he then "sings," creating a most uncanny, droning glottal harmony. In fact, the sound design overall is as considered and pristine as every other aspect of the film, from the cracking ice of a glacier, to the occasional music cues, to the last descendants of the original five native tribes whom Guzmán asks to speak in their nearly-vanished, guttural, ancient-sounding tongues. And back to the caress of Guzmán’s own voice, delivering insights sometimes personal and sometimes universal, but always provocative and meaningful.

Despite an abiding personal interest in Chile, I confess I found Guzmán’s "Nostalgia for the Light" a little unsatisfying. Slightly overstretched in its attempts to relate the ethereal physics of the universe to the enragingly unjust, the political reality of those countless bodies becomes buried in the desert. But here, by stepping back and weaving in even more peripheral threads, Guzmán has somehow made whole cloth of this cosmic, earthly, local and personal story.

The title comes from the tale of a native tribesman who was taken to England, made into "a gentleman" and then deposited back with his tribe, where he no longer belonged. His name was Jemmy Button — so-called because that was what the British explorers paid to steal him away for this lark: one pearl button. While there is so much in this film, so many thoughtful, inspiring and tragic ideas about water and stars and memory and music, this is what will probably stay with me longest: Guzman’s beautiful, heartbroken narration as he tries to make sense of the senseless fact that, for centuries, the powerful have been able to weigh the value of the lives of the powerless, and be it a single body underneath the waves, or a whole people, they have judged them worthless. Or worth, at best, a button. [A-]

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