Finding answers in the past... and present
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, April 22, 2011
Chilean director Patricio Guzman is best known for his documentaries on Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. With “Nostalgia for the Light,” Guzman evinces the same passion for exploring his country’s most grievous political past, but broadens his scope to take in larger existential questions. The result is a film that rates as the filmmaker’s masterpiece, an exquisitely filmed, poetically written meditation on how past and present fuse in humanity’s most unresolved questions.
The starting point for Guzman’s inquiry is Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest place on Earth and, as such, the place where the night sky can be found at its most translucent. Because of this natural accident, scientists have set up massive arrays of telescopes in the Atacama, the better to plumb the outer mysteries of space. The desert’s dry heat has also preserved pre-Columbian remains underground, where archaeologists dig for pristine bones of our forebears. Meanwhile, the Atacama has also served as a prime locale for 19th-century silver and saltpeter mines, where indigenous workers were brutally oppressed and where, decades later, the Pinochet junta unceremoniously dumped the remains of dissidents executed during its savage campaign against communism.
All of those strains come into play in “Nostalgia for the Light,” as Guzman bears witness to the diverse communities who come to the Atacama, including the mothers of “disappeared” political prisoners who obsessively comb the dust for bone fragments. From that closely observed, almost microscopic search he travels to a huge observatory, where astronomers seek evidence of the very beginning of time in their observation of the outer reaches of the universe. “We’re all artifacts of the past,” a scientist says at one point, noting that everything we experience has already happened, even if only a millionth of a second ago.
But some pasts are easier to confront than others; where the astronomers and archeologists that Pinochet once banned are now lionized in Chilean society, the mothers’ excavations aren’t embraced nearly as warmly. It’s as if, Guzman speculates, “history might accuse us.”
Gracefully moving between the infinite and the practical, the celestial and the implacably grounded, Guzman has created a sensitive, richly textured portrait of time and place that transcends both those conceits. “Nostalgia for the Light” may take place in Chile, but its quest is universal, as it leads viewers to deep questions of their own concerning time, truth and their own place in the cosmic cycle we can only dimly comprehend. The truism has it that stories are what make us human, but as Guzman suggests in this lyrical, deeply moving film, it’s more likely the “gravitational force of memory.”
Contains mature thematic material. In English and Spanish with subtitles.