Patricio Guzmán’s epochal multipart 1978 documentary The Battle of Chile concludes with a slow zoom out on a barren desert plain. The image is despairing but not entirely bereft: the U.S.-backed coup d’etat against Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president Salvador Allende has already taken place, and General Augusto Pinochet, the ultimately genocidal dictator, has assumed the throne, but the miners and other various workers interviewed and followed by Guzmán in this third part of the film remain hopeful of the future. They will reassemble, they vow, and their somewhat defeated promises for the regrowth of the Chilean Communist Party echo over images of the vast Chilean expanse of sand and rock, emptied of signs of life.
This somber ending is fitting not only for the epic political cri de coeur itself but also as a starting point of sorts for the rest of Guzmán’s career: his engagement, likewise, begins here. From In the Name of God (1987) and Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), through The Pinochet Case (2001), Guzmán has become the cinematic memory of Chile, exorcizing his nation’s demons in a longterm project to ensure that the world never forgets the horrific realities of the regime. With his newest documentary, Nostalgia for the Light (a U.S. release is planned for 2011), Guzmán journeys back to the desert and in so doing proves that he remains one of the most vital, engaged, searching voices in cinema. Like all of his films, it’s a work of major excavation, only in some ways more literal: setting the groundwork for the film’s many narrative and philosophical threads is its portrait of the Atacama desert, its past and present, its sky and earth, its technological and historical resonances. Read Michael Koresky’s article “We Are Stardust” for Reverse Shot’s American All-Stars symposium.