Nostalgia for the Light

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Laura Clifford 
Nostalgia for the Light

Nostalgia for the Light

Robin Clifford 

In Chile's Atacama Desert there is no humidity and nothing lives but it is a place where astronomers believe they can touch the stars.  But the area also has a lot of history, much of it hidden.  From the native Indians massacred to twentieth century miners, the dead haunt the area, but none more so that the 'disappeared,' whose mothers, wives and sisters sift through the sand around the observatories looking for remains.  Writer/director Patricio Guzmán ("The Pinochet Case") makes a profound statement by pairing up these scientists who look into the heavens with the women looking for closure on a devastating political period in "Nostalgia for the Light."

There is something about the combination of blue and deep orange on the cinema screen.  As Guzmán lays the groundwork for his moving essay, one which has a spiritual companionship with Terrence Malick's "The Tree of Life," he shows how Chile's Atacama Desert comprises the only brown spot on our blue planet when seen from space. But the desert has a red blush, one which is reflected in spirals in the the night sky.  Guzmán and his editing partner Emmanuelle Joly ("The Witnesses") carefully map the color scheme from the observatory's extraordinary images with cinematographer Katell Djian's ("Nénette") to paint beautiful pictures which become moving not only in the way they are manipulated (a skull photographed to suggest a celestial body) but with the words that accompany them (a survivor of Pinochet's Chacabuco concentration camp traces the mostly obscured names of fellow prisoners on a wall - when he gets to the last, of which only a few letters remains, he says 'I remember him well.').  Gaspar, a young animated astronomer, speaks of his love of the science but also how it leads to the big, spiritual questions of where did we come from and why are we here.  As Lautaro, an archeologist, discusses the many mummies found in the desert, Guzmán makes us come to the realization of how they speak from the past just like the light traveling through the cosmos.  A man who can draw Pinochet's entire camp from the memories of pacing off the spaces now lives with a wife who has Alzheimer's.

Pieces and fragments are found in the sand where satellites sit listening through time, waiting to record the Big Bang.  A woman finally accepts the death of a loved one after she finds his foot.  A scientist unwraps a mummy for Guzmán's camera and the Indian is a tableaux of another time.  The stories continue to amaze, the images astound.  The filmmaker finds his most literal connection in Valentina, a young girl whose parents were both 'disappeared,' now working for the astronomers.

Guzmán does let the pace of his film fall off a bit towards the end, where his sympathies for the 'mothers of Chile' tilt the balance of what has come before.  But this is a provocative work, a documentary that doesn't merely present facts but induces its audience to connect ideas.


"Nostalgia for the Light" is distributed by Icarus Films.

10,000 feet above see level, in mountainous Chile, is vast desert, the Atacama, that is totally devoid of moisture and is a lifeless, barren land. However, the lack of moisture and pollution and miles high elevation make this the ideal place to observe the universe from planet Earth. The array of observatories constructed on this forbidding land is manned by astronomers from around the world. But, this arid land also holds secrets of both our ancient and recent past in “Nostalgia for the Light.”

Documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman is known for his works on films about the political upheaval that beset his beloved Chile for decades. With “Nostalgia of the Light,” he gives us three distinct chronicles: one about the cosmos, another about the incredibly preserved pre-Colombian mummies found and studied in the Atacama and, last, the women who search the desert looking for the remains of their loved ones “disappeared” during the reign of terror led by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.

Each of these subjects is given full shrift in a beautifully photographed, well-written and finely directed way. The cosmos chapter shows the vast observatory that the Atacama has become. With no moisture in the air to cloud the skies, the astronomers and their giant telescopes can look deep into the heavens with unimagined clarity. The magnificent photo images from these massive telescopes shows us, according to one astronomer, the birthplace of the universe 14 billion years ago. What we see, in the present, are the cosmic events that occurred millions and billions of years ago. This chapter of “Nostalgia…” is both awe-inspiring and breath-taking.

The ancient history of the land harkens back a thousand or more years ago when the Mayans used the desert as a burial ground. The lack of moisture preserves the bodies and they become intact mummies. The land also is the final resting place for 19th Century explores and miners that toiled in this bleak landscape to mine salt and saltpeter. The archeologists, like the astronomers, are investigating the past but one much more recent in the fabric of time.

The third chapter of “Nostalgia of the Light,” the most somber, follows the women –mothers, wives and sisters - of their missing loved ones taken by Pinochet’s murderous henchmen and made to not exist. Because of the preservation of the desert, many of these survivors have been searching for 30 years. Even now, remains are still being found and identified and, for some, there is closure. As magnificent as the cosmos are to see, the unstoppable spirit of the folk who will not give up in their search is inspirational. Again, the searchers are looking into past to seek answers in the present.

Guzman handles these three subjects with deft skill and makes each part complete. The writer-helmer also has a top notch crew with cinematographer, Katell Dijan, making the stark environment of the Atacama desert a thing of beauty. Original music, sure-handed editing, the stunning panorama and scope of the observatories, the desert and the night sky, plus the heartbreaking stories of the searchers, make this a top contender for best documentary. I give it an A-.
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