Patricio Guzmán's latest documentary Nostalgia For The Light initially seems like a detour from his usual probing investigations of Chilean history and the fallout of Augusto Pinochet's dictatorial reign of torture and mass "disappearances." Here, Guzmán travels to the Atacama Desert, the only place on earth with no humidity whatsoever, where astronomers and archaeologists come to access the past (the sky is translucent, and the dry ground preserves remains well). But the desert is also the site of burials for the many tortured and dead, and relatives still search for the skeletons of their "desaparecidos." Guzmán synthesizes these disparate parts into a staid but absorbing whole. Meditative and frequently gorgeous, the easy-to-watch film will nonetheless have a hard time attracting viewers; in outline, it sounds more severe than it is.
Like many Chileans, Guzmán was fascinated with astronomy as a child. After the Pinochet regime came into power, the sight of the stars took on additional connotations of childhood innocence. Still fascinated today, Guzmán comes to Atacama not so much to investigate the scientific work done there but to probe the mental atmosphere and meanings of this kind of work, as it occurs in a politically charged landscape.
Astronomers reconstruct the furthest recesses of the scientific past, Guzmán muses; so, too, do archaeologists. How is it that Chileans—as one astronomer notes—comprehend scientific star-gazing but can't understand the women who tirelessly comb the desert for human remains? The distant past is easier to excavate than the carefully obscured atrocities of forty years ago. The scientists at Atacama are acutely aware of this paradox, conducting their work in a desert area full of history that needs piecing together, whether from 40 years ago or the beginnings of the universe.
In just over 90 minutes, Guzmán synthesizes all these disparate parts into a coherent landscape. It's a shock to see an American astronomer working in the Atacama; he studies the calcium qualities of the stars seemingly unaware of the weight of the landscape around him. Guzmán follows through on the promises of the title: especially in its opening half-hour, all kinds of light are observed, filtered through windows or reflected on glass panes, flooding the telescope bay, or simply in the form of dust motes floating. At unexpected moments, Guzmán flawlessly dissolves this floating light over people or places, bringing the light—of the stars and history—to bear upon the present.
Distributor: Icarus Films
Director/Screenwriter: Patricio Guzmán
Producers: Meike Martens and Renate Sachse
Running time: 90 min.
Release date: March 18 NY