Patricio Guzmán’s beautiful, layered, and thought-provoking essay film, Nostalgia for the Light, seeks to explore the past—distant and recent—as seen in the stark, Atacama desert of Chile. The film’s images are never less than stunning, whether the camera shows us visions of celestial or physical bodies. The Atacama is home to the largest telescopes in Chile, its arid climate perfect for taking in galaxies and stars. At the same time, the aridity of the desert means those who die there are uniquely preserved, whether 1,000 years old or thirty.
On top of the stunning visuals, Guzmán mixes personal reflections through his own narration with comments from astronomers, geologists, and those who lost loved ones during the brutal reign of General Pinochet. It is this final group, and the event itself, which connects the film to the contemporary mind. In a country where astronomy—which looks at the distant past—is so popular, Guzmán laments the unwillingness of his countrymen to reflect on the more recent past—whether the brutality toward Chilean Indians in the late 19th century or the mass assassinations of the Pinochet regime in the 1970s.
Guzmán’s combination of astronomy with geology proves noteworthy, uniting heaven and earth in a search for identity, origins, and understanding. Astronomy provides a sense of transcendence to the search for understanding of the recent Chilean past, while geology provides a sense of rootedness to the larger questions the film poses. When the film turns its attention to two women who had family members killed by the Pinochet regime—women who have spent or continue to spend some time in the desert systematically digging for their loved ones—the film takes on an intensely personal and immediate quality.
Nostalgia’s unique vision of beauty and suffering, of humanism and destruction, of past and future, of science and artistry, and of heaven and earth create a series of paradoxes that I suspect will give the film a life not just in the contemporary moment, but for many years to come.