Patricio Guzman’s masterful documentary somehow manages to transcend the themes on show and slowly becomes a story about our own hazy, complicated relationship with the past and the present, of a country’s history and of our own origins. Opening with a slow sequence in which a giant telescope grinds into life in an observatory in Chile’s Atacama desert, a symbol of the hope which once existed for a small group of Astronomers living in the best place on earth for star gazing, it twists and turns, moving into a harrowing tale.
The film expertly draws comparison between astronomy, the speed of light, the power of memory and ties it all into the deep sad story of a handful of women, still searching in 2012 through the desert for remains of “The Disappeared”, victims of General Pinochet’s horrifying Chacabuco concentration camps. Though the themes of the film seem light years apart, somehow Guzman makes it all work. Discussions about what the present is and if in fact it actually exists and questions of our origin within the stars are poetically linked into a governmental cover up surrounding the disappearance of the bodies from a mass grave in the early 1990’s. It’s this human trait of needlessly covering the horrors of the past and our programmed need for answers from the stars that drive Nostalgia for the Light.
At one point astronomer Gaspar Galez talks about his love of science coming from the fact that when one question is answered it inadvertently creates four more. Such is the act of uncovering history or geology, finding out the composition of stars and such is the search of the women in the Atacama desert. The interviews with Vicky Saavedra and Violeta Berrios are brilliantly captured and heartbreaking to a level rarely reached in modern documentary work. They wander through the dawn in the driest place on earth sifting through the dust for bones of husbands and sons and brothers the same way Galez scans the sky, or the way that SETI uses radio waves to find extraterrestrial life. Saavedra dreams of a telescope that can look through the earth and find her past.
Whether wandering through the desert, photographing the stars or chatting with a group of people who use astronomy to deepen an understanding of the past, Guzman excels, creating a documentary which not only serves as a historical document of Chile’s shadowed history but also as a philosophical treasure trove which stands proudly as a film of staggering hurt and beauty.