Nostalgia for the Light

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(Dir. Patricio Guzmán, Chile, 2010)

Remains of Remains

“The present doesn’t exist,” we’re told by one astronomer somewhat humorously commenting on the millionths of a second it takes for images to reach the human eye. By the time we’ve seen something, it’s already in the past. Fittingly, then, Patricio Guzmán’s appropriately titled Nostalgia for the Light is almost exclusively concerned with the past – both distant origins and recent memories. The Chilean filmmaker documents the lasting effects of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship on his fellow countrymen in a profoundly unique manner by juxtaposing two ongoing, seemingly unrelated searches in the nation’s Atacama Desert – a location, Guzmán tells us, boasting the driest climate on the planet. Though these conditions cannot sustain much life, they prove to be ideal for the study of astronomy; a scientific field that Guzmán reveals in the film’s early voiceover narration that he’s quite passionate about. Thus, the arid landscape made up of not more than cracked earth and sand is peppered with enormous observatories housing some of the world’s most powerful telescopes – described eloquently as windows to the cosmos.

Guzmán introduces us to these magnificent machines in detailed close-up and provides context for these cosmic explorations with wordy, yet engaging interviews with prominent astronomers. The enthusiasm with which these experts discuss their findings and hypotheses regarding topics as paramount as the origins of the universe is enough to keep viewers enthralled, and yet Guzmán grants us breathtaking still shots of the infinite expanse captured by these telescopes that accompany the entirety of his film. After setting the stage by directing our gaze skyward, Guzmán brings us back to earth and closer to home for this filmmaker by shedding light on another, less dazzling side of the Atacama. Sitting down now with a prominent archeologist, he uncovers a historical, treacherous use for this desolate wilderness. Stretching as far back as the 19th century with slave-like conditions for native Indian mining communities, the Atacama conceals the horrors of a violent past beneath its cracked surface. These mining shelters served another purpose during Pinochet’s rule; they became concentration camps for dissenters of the regime, and the land surrounding them became the burial ground for many.

Archeologists are not alone in their excavation of the desert. Aging women – widows, sisters, and daughters of the long deceased – continue to search for remains of their loved ones nearly forty years later. Guzmán interviews a few of these brave women who have lived a life plagued by loss and the absence of closure. These moments provide his film with its beating heart, emotional testimonies of an oppressive government that’s left an indelible mark on the many who have suffered most through the disappearance of those they loved and lost. In highlighting the plight and quest of these women, Guzmán ties these separate threads together. Despite their differing goals, both are united in their search for answers. These intellectual stargazers look up and wonder why we’re here. These determined women look around and wonder why any of this ever happened. Guzmán’s film poignantly reveals the human need to plumb the depths of the unknown – some out of innate curiosity, others for closure. In both scenarios, these seekers look to the past for answers to their questions.

Guzmán presses this pairing of his film’s subjects further by the astronomical revelation that the brilliant galaxies of the telescopic images are composed of the mineral calcium just like human bones. The stars that hover light years away are remains of some supernova or cosmic birth, and the bone fragments uncovered by archeologists and searchers alike are remains of remains, the lasting remnants of a catastrophic dictatorship. In one affecting sequence, Guzmán showcases a series of images of far-off celestial bodies and then rests on a few of the moon. On one such image, the camera slowly pans down and reveals that it is indeed an extreme close-up of a human skull. It’s a powerful move and a defining moment for Nostalgia for the Light. Likewise, Guzmán utilizes his camera masterfully throughout. The film consists of many lengthy wide shots and pans of the Atacama, both of the landscape and the expansive sky above. He magnificently uses great open spaces to inspire awe and convey depths of despair in turn.

Guzmán’s film ends with a fitting and touching wedding of these two strands as one of his interviewed astronomers assists two of the searching women into the seat of one the observatories’ gigantic telescopes. The scientist, likely hearing the women’s stories, is reminded of his country’s most recent past, and the searchers are given a glimpse of humankind’s most distant past as they stare into the infinite expanse above. Guzmán has covered Chile’s history under Pinochet’s rule at length before (his The Battle of Chile trilogy), and so Nostalgia for the Light reads less like a historical document and more like an exploration of the present in light of the past as well as a plea of sorts. Guzmán opines that his fellow Chileans would do better to follow the lead of the women of the Atacama and not so easily forget the past. Only there can we – as people the world over – learn who we are now in the present and work toward who we want to be in the future.

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