With his latest film, Nostalgia for the Light, Chilean director Patricio Guzmán (The Battle of Chile) achieves a near-impossible feat in documentary film. He's produced a philosophically rich work that makes palpable connections between the Earth and sky alongside the historical and the theoretical, spanning both time and emotional space.
Opening with a focus on the Atacama Desert's uniquely immaculate conditions for astronomical observation, it's not long before Guzmán is able to weave between this scientific discipline's engagement with the past (as in light seen from the Earth long after it's emanated from the cosmos) and the personal and political turmoil that still lingers long after the brutal reign of Augusto Pinochet.
To this end, Guzmán juxtaposes his interviews with astronomers against conversations with women who still comb the desert in search of their disappeared men, lost to the assassinations of the Pinochet era. The comparison works well since, in addition to the established temporal concerns of these speakers, the complete lack of humidity in the Atacama Desert--preserving the bodies of the dead while simultaneously providing a prime opportunity to gaze upon celestial bodies--is the common thread that enables both quests.
The entire film boils down to a single provocative statement made by one of Guzmán's subjects: there is no present. And for the people being documented here, it's a truth that hard to deny. Like all of us, they are wrapped up in an ongoing evaluation of moments that have already drifted past our constantly unfolding futures.
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