The Sky Above, the Bodies Below

03/16/2011 4:00 AM |

Nostalgia for the Light

Directed by Patricio Guzmán

In Nostalgia for the Light, the Chilean documentary auteur Patricio Guzmán travels to his country’s Atacama Desert to find the intersection between astronomy, archeology, geology, paleontology and history. Atacama is the driest desert on the planet, offering unparalleled access to the mysteries hidden both above and below. Today the locale is best known as the site of two radically different groups: the scientists who work to uncover the origins of the universe, and the widows and relatives of the victims of Pinochet’s dictatorship. The former search for their answers in the sky, while the latter dig through the arid desert in an attempt to find the scattered remains of their loved ones. They are all there for the same reason: a near futile obsession with understanding a past that refuses to divulge its secrets.

Guzmán became one of the most important Latin American filmmakers after his epic three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1973-1979). The young Guzmán was able to finish his alarmingly and acutely passionate epic of Pinochet’s coup thanks to the help of Chris Marker. Guzmán‘s latest film forces another association to one of Marker’s Left Bank contemporaries, Alain Resnais. Like Resnais, Guzmán is drawn to the aftershocks when personal memory and world history collide—measured, in Nostalgia for the Light, in human suffering. From concentration camp survivors to the widows and relatives of those who didn’t make it out, Guzmán’s lens focuses on the scars of Chile’s recent past—a past he refuses to allow to fade into oblivion.

Guzmán doesn’t approach the dictatorship with the The Battle of Chile‘s youthful indignation . His direction is patient and contemplative, perhaps in response to incomprehensible trauma. Guzmán no longer tries to understand the “Why?” or “How?” of the dictatorship. Instead, through his portrayal of the survivors of Pinochet’s brutal legacy, we see that the real question in the director’s mind is “Who?” Guzmán’s film shows the faces and voices of those who live perpetually with the pain of the past. The moments of greatest impact do not stem from the interview subjects’ words, but from the moments of painful silence between.

Guzmán balances the vast, imposing Atacama Desert and the clear sky above it with an intimate, poetic voice-over narration as sophisticated as his compositions. The film is essentially a cinematic metaphor, linking and exploring its philosophical concerns in a lean ninety-minute running time. It’s not a documentary that reaches, or even pretends to reach, conclusions. Instead, it’s a film that explores and examines the remnants of the desert and the astral plane above it. Like the cosmos, Chile’s turbulent past might be something impossible to fully understand. It is, nevertheless, just as important to continue exploring.

Opens March 18 at IFC Center