Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has based his entire career on the excavation of truth, whether it be personal or more importantly, national and political. Those familiar with his epic 1970s document The Battle of Chile or his more recent The Pinochet Case won’t be surprised that his latest film, the provocative and illuminating Nostalgia for the Light deals in part with the unending nightmare of his country’s past. But this eloquent, deeply felt cine-essay is something of a surprise in the way that it connects the thousands of murdered and disappeared Chileans from the era of Augusto Pinochet’s ruthless dictatorship to matters seemingly greater and smaller: this is a portrait of nothing less than the universe, and all the creatures and particles, great and small, who swarm within its incomprehensible boundaries.
If that sounds heady, rest assured that Nostalgia for the Light is a fluid, coherent work that is clearly the result of a master filmmaker. Beginning as a dreamy tribute to Guzmán’s fascination with astronomy as a child and the vast beauty of the Atacama desert, in which one of the world’s largest telescopes is perched, the film keeps spinning out into larger concentric circles, lent astonishing gravity by the director’s commanding voice-over: the Chilean astronomers who kept to their vigilant stargazing even after the coup segues to contemporary scientists waxing about diffuse galaxies and the origins of life down below; the impossibility of the present in time and space leads to a discussion of the national wrestling with the country’s past; the treatment of nineteenth-century miners as though slaves finds more recent parallels with Pinochet’s concentration-camp victims, where, it turns out, inmates fashioned makeshift telescopes. It’s all rather free associative, and sometimes the director lets us make the connections ourselves: the names of the political prisoners etched on the walls of the defunct concentration camps may remind us of the mysterious ancient carvings on rocks in the desert we see earlier in the film.
Perhaps Guzmán’s most memorable gambit is finally making his way to the story of the women of Calama, who, so many years later, still scour the desert for remains of their loved ones—victims of the country’s murderous regime. They search for years, decades, tireless in their quest for some semblance of resolution, even though they know it’s unlikely they will ever find it. It’s a never-ending quest, Guzmán implies, not unlike that of astronomers through the centuries, searching for answers to life’s great mysteries. The present is fragile, if it exists at all: all we have is the grip of the past and the anticipation of the future. For now, we’re just calcium and stardust.
All of this is told through a series of sometimes repetitive, yet cumulatively powerful images, of outer space and earth, of the faces of Chilean victims and their children, of trees and rocks and huge telescopes. The director’s sophisticated collage sometimes makes space for intriguingly dissociative sound and image connections, such as when the image of a Chilean exile’s mother, now a masseuse, putting her healing hands on a client is overlaid with a voiceover explaining the 30,000 recorded instances of torture during the regime. The past is ever present, yet life goes on, and there is occasional solace. —Michael Koresky