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The excavation of historical meaning, from the expanding eternity of the cosmos to the brief temporality of human lives tethered to the political history of their nations, is the subject of Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia For The Light. Guzmán’s film is a powerful cinematic essay that uses Chile’s Atacama desert as the locus of inquiry; a place devoid of humidity, the Atacama is one of the finest places on earth for telescopic lenses to pierce the Earth’s atmosphere, providing a brilliant look at the universe. While the sky is clear, the earth itself holds secrets; having provided a century’s worth of salt peter, which was mined by men whose lives only hover at the fringes of our collective memory, it is also a giant graveyard for missing persons. In the late 20th century, the miner’s community, a patchwork of industrial buildings and cramped living quarters, was converted by the regime of Augusto Pinochet into a “concentration camp”, where political prisoners were kept in deep isolation, tortured, murdered and buried in mass, unmarked graves beneath the barren soil.

Guzmán’s film provides a way of looking at the intersections of these seemingly disparate histories, pointing his own lens from the infinite expanses of the night sky, filled with swirling galaxies, exploding stars and mysterious planets, back down to the tiniest fragments of human bone found scattered like stardust across the seemingly endless desert. Like all honest historical inquiries, Nostalgia For The Light acknowledges the act of interpretation as being essential to our understanding, and the film provides a series of rhyming discussions that perhaps make the juxtaposition between heaven and earth a little too obvious; there are the astronomers, who describe the nature of human existence as being essentially without a “present tense”, which is to say that all light, sound and even the electrical impulses that drive our motor skills arrive from the past, and there are the women of the desert, who spend their days combing the ground for evidence and body parts from the loved ones they lost to the political violence of the Pinochet regime. It is, in other words, a powerful and persuasive argument for the essential role history must play in all of our lives; we can talk about moving on from the past or how much things have changed, but the words themselves flow from a thought that is itself old, typed by fingers receiving impulses from the past and made of bones that contain the calcium of the stars themselves, the matter that shapes us having been present at the birth of the universe.

Nostalgia For The Light

If all of this seems heady and academic, rest assured there is a real cinematic poetry in Guzmán’s work here, using what Bresson would call cinematography to place images and ideas, sound and light, side by side to create meaning. This is a difficult trick to pull off in an essay film, as often in, for example, the case of someone like Chris Marker (one of my favorite filmmakers), the key to the poetry is the ironic relationship between the images and the sound, the narration and the montage. In the case of Nostalgia For The Light, this irony is replaced by a sincere inquiry into the feeling of loss and the need for discovery, the significance of understanding “what happened” (from the creation of the universe to the murder of a brother or husband) to give meaning and shape to the present tense. So it is with cinema, with light and sound recorded, printed and then projected onto a screen, our eyes and ears processing the past while fresh emotions well up inside of us. Guzmán understands this as well, and if anything, it is his sincere dedication to human feeling, here excavated from our long and heartbreaking history, that makes Nostalgia For The Light such a powerful statement on the importance of the past in defining our lives.

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