Nostalgia for the Light ***
Directed by: Patricio Guzman.
Nostalgia for the Lighter is a strangely beautiful documentary – and a haunting one. It takes place in the Atacama Desert in Chile, and is about people digging into the past, in more ways than one. This is one of the driest places on earth – there are parts of the desert where no rain had ever been recorded. It is also one of the highest deserts in the world. The combination of thin atmosphere and no humidity make it perfect for astronomers, who can gaze further out into space here than anywhere else on earth. Of course what they see is the past – because by the time the images make their way to them, they have already happened elsewhere in the universe. But the darker side of the Atacama Desert is that there was once a Concentration Camp there – run by the country’s former dictator Augusto Pinochet. Thousands of political prisoners were brought there in the 1970s – and most of them have “disappeared”. Relatives still come to the desert, with their shovels, to try and find their bodies. That they haven’t found them yet –and most likely never will, because the desert is so vast, and the feeling that most of the bodies were dumped into the ocean, doesn’t stop them. They come still.
To director Patricio Guzman, who has spent his career howling with rage over Pinochet and the coup that ruined Chile, these two quests are basically the same. Whether looking into the sky with powerful telescopes, or digging into the earth to find the bodies of relatives, both are ways of exploring the past – a past that must be studied and remembered if we are to move forward into the future.
A documentary like Nostalgia for the Light is difficult. It is more cinematic essay than true documentary film – a film more about ideas and philosophy than anything else. Guzman’s quiet, voiceover narration is for the most part poetic and at times profound, although it does slip over to pretentious at times. The same can be said of his beautiful imagery, some which will likely stay with you long after the movie ends – although I could have done with the images of floating dust particles while Guzman waxed poetic on the soundtrack.
Nostalgia for the Light is an interesting, transfixing documentary. I may prefer the more traditional documentary structure, and yet this is a film that haunts you. Most films leave your mind as soon as they are done. This one, despite its flaws, does not.