“Nostalgia for the Light,” the new film by director Patricio Guzmán, is more a meditation than a documentary. Rather than tell one story, Guzmán has braided three narratives together into an exploration of our need to look into the past. Coexisting in the stark, moonlike expanse of Chile’s Atacama Desert, astronomers, archeologists and survivors of the brutal Pinochet regime each search for answers about times gone by.
“Nostalgia” is a beautiful film. The cinematography captures the desolation of the Atacama, while at the same time stunning you with its spectacle. The narrative and interviews are laced with brilliant images of galaxies and nebulae. It’s true that these are images most of us have seen many times; even so, these pictures took on new life for this reviewer when blown up on the big screen. Perhaps the only major flaw in the look of the film was a recurring motif of an unfocused, billowing cloud of specks. This seems to have been meant to represent stardust, but it looked more like a bad case of dandruff, and it distracted from the imagery.
As gorgeous as “Nostalgia for the Light” is, it’s not really a movie about pretty pictures; it’s about ideas—and people.
We are always looking into the past. As an astronomer in the film notes, the light bouncing off an object takes time to reach our eyes. It takes time for our retinas to react and send a signal to the brain. It takes time for our brain to process those signals into a perception. Everything we see is history. But the players in this drama take this one step further. They are driven—each by their own motivations—to peer more deeply into the past in order to understand their present.
The dry air and dark skies of the Atacama Desert have lured astronomers for decades. In this film, they examine stars near and far, discovering in their composition the origins of the elements which make up our world. They study entire galaxies far outside our own familiar Milky Way; the light from the faintest of these galaxies has been traveling for billions of years to reach Earth. As they gaze upward toward the far reaches of the universe, these scientists are quite literally looking back toward the beginning of time.
Meanwhile, another group of researchers try to look back by looking down. The arid soil of the desert preserves organic material remarkably well, so archeologists are also drawn to the Atacama. The mummified remains they exhume provide keys to understanding an earlier chapter in the story of humanity.
But the most brightly-colored thread of the braid—the images and testimony which will haunt you long after you leave the theater—is the story of the survivors of the Pinochet atrocities. Thousands of Chileans were murdered and countless more imprisoned and tortured during Augusto Pinochet’s reign. Many of the dead lie buried in unmarked mass graves in the Atacama Desert, and so the scientists are joined in the wasteland by dozens of damaged souls, the families and loved ones of the disappeared who sift the sands for closure, for some physical connection to their loss.
It might seem that the tales of the scientists are woven into the film in order to give some philosophical depth to the stories of the victims but, for this reviewer anyway, the effect was very different. The three threads are expertly braided, and they hold together to make a film that transcends any of the individual themes. The more emotional thread sticks with you. It assures that you’ll be thinking about the film for a long time to come. And every time you do, you will think beyond the sadness and you’ll ponder the centrality of the past in all of our lives.
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