In his latest film, Nostalgia for the Light, legendary documentary maker Patricio Guzman draws stirring parallels between astronomers in Chile’s Atacama Desert and people on the ground, searching for the remains of their loved ones who disappeared under Pinochet’s brutal regime.
Do we ever truly live in the present? Is one person’s notion of the present different to another’s? Or is the past the only constant force in this world? In Guzman’s film, it would appear that whether one looks through a telescope into the heavens or makes an increasingly futile search on ground level, the objective conclusion is the same: we are, at all times, governed by our past. The astronomers view things pragmatically: scientific exploration into the past will inevitably yield some answers. It just so happens those answers then lead to more questions.
The haunting, sandblasted climate of the Atacama Desert itself poses the same quandary, forever hiding the fundamental riddles in every crevice and only revealing teasing, cruel glimpses of what the past means. For every fragment of information that’s given up, the desert holds millions more close to its heart.
This is where Guzman’s film fans out and takes on ever more haunting significance. An archaeologist muses over a rudimentary cave painting, assessing its practical implications. By contrast, a desperate group of women frantically search the desert for the remains of their loved ones, political prisoners who vanished as a result of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship. An especially poignant image is the abandoned concentration camp, Chacabuco, a windblown testament to what the country has gone through.
There is, it seems, a double standard when it comes to Chile’s ancient past and the more recent one bearing horrific scars of human cruelty. In interviews with the women, they describe how they are treated with contempt by the current government as a result of their searching. And yet, neither the astronomers nor the archaeologists appear to be treated in the same way. Is it right to draw a line under recent events even whilst it’s appropriate to research our ancestors?
The Atacama has no involvement in this political hypocrisy. Impassive and extraordinary, to the desert, there is but one notion of the past. Human involvement is as ephemeral as sunlight passing over a rock. Guzman’s wise film assesses human insignificance with the same distanced gaze but it’s a beautifully impassioned movie, sweeping in its examination of the stars and heart-breaking in its focus on a country that ripped itself apart.
Guzman is never didactic when it comes to introducing these questions and, sensibly, he never attempts to provide any answers. The visual sweep of the movie is intoxicating, best summed up by one incredible image of a person silhouetted against the twilight of the darkening desert whilst, above, a single star illuminates the sky. It’s a marvellous distillation of what the movie is about.
On a final note, it may be worth considering that as you’re reading this review, every passing word is already consigned to past history. As humans, we may never understand what it’s like to live in the present, but thanks to movies such as Nostalgia for the Light, we realise our condition is as much a wondrous experience as it is a melancholy one.