Search and Rescue

Patricio Guzmán, Nostalgia for the Light, 2010, still from a color film, 90 minutes.

PATRICIO GUZMÁN’S FILMS are shovels and telescopes—farseeing, barehanded excavations. For over four decades, he has recorded and interrogated Chile’s history with devastating, rallying lucidity—bearing witness to bomb-sieged Allende and Pinochet’s politicidal junta, then advocating, from exile, for the numberless “disappeared” and against national amnesia. The Battle of Chile (1975–78) remains unsurpassed in capturing the heat and precariousness of mass action in the streets during crisis or transition. Though a tragedy, the film trilogy is a paean to the articulate political self-organization of working people. As if in sympathy with the copper miners portrayed there, history-work appears everywhere in Guzmán as an act of digging: Exhumations open The Pinochet Case (2001); peripatetic Madrid (2002) is fascinated by street drilling; in mournful Salvador Allende (2004), his own hand scrapes paint to uncover an old mural.

A spacious film essay, Nostalgia for the Light (2010) revisits his childhood love of astronomy, delving sky as well as earth to explore the past in deep time. It is interested in the calcium composing both bones and stars, in the whorls marbling nebulae and stones, in affinities between petroglyphs and prison scrawls. Threading themes as large as the consubstantiality of matter and the continuity of life, individual voices of historical endurance relate their inner, sustaining sense of longues durées. The film is set in South America’s Atacama Desert, where observatories perch templelike above former sites of colonial enslavement and state atrocity. As astronomers tunnel light-years and archaeologists unearth pre-Columbian mummies, bereft women dig for the desaparecidos strewn here by the thousands during Pinochet’s rule. Limberly, these women sit on the ground, fingers sifting sand; they’ve been taught forensic seeing by decades at this work. Nearby lie the ruins of the concentration camp Chacabuco (originally an abandoned nitrate mine, one exploitation site supplanting another), where, a survivor recounts, he learned inner freedom by stargazing. For a daughter of disappeared parents, meanwhile, the stars instilled a feeling of belonging. Everyone here speaks with the intimate sagacity of those accustomed to thinking through pain and beyond their own lifetimes.

Their narrative ley lines interrelate the film’s nesting scales (generational, historical, cosmological), as does metamorphic montage. A close pan of pebbles cuts smoothly to a pocked planet then traces another rounded, grainy surface—all in an even-paced glide—until reaching two bony hollows where eyes had been. Desert salt formations like hairy blisters or molted cocoons oddly miniaturize the space-observatory pods. A mere pivot of angle can clinch a chilling analogy: Approached from below, shelved cardboard boxes storing unidentified prisoners’ remains become an uncanny model of Chacabuco—two beige burials.

For all its own love of the untouchable, cradling sky, Nostalgia for the Light refuses consoling transcendences. Loyal to memory’s “gravitational force,” it is resolutely, audibly grounded: Cosmic silences and the cavernous echoes of unlatching telescope apertures lend expanse, but Guzmán’s ear keeps closest to shovel blades slicing dry earth, feet treading its brittleness. “We have hidden away our nearest past,” laments the archaeologist, “as if this history might accuse us.” Like all of Guzmán’s work, this film sounds out both hard-won hope and eloquent, invincible accusation.

Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light opens Friday, March 18, at the IFC Center in New York. Three Guzmán retrospectives run in April: “Obstinate Memories: The Documentaries of Patricio Guzmán,” at BAMcinématek in Brooklyn, New York, April 1–7, 2011; “Patricio Guzmán’s Chile” at Northwest Film Forum in Seattle, April 1–7, 2011; and “Afterimage: The Films of Patricio Guzmán” at Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley, April 2–28, 2011.