Some documentaries are so straightforward in their approach that a description alone conveys just about all they have to offer. Not so for Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia For The Light. The film explores Chile’s Atacama Desert, where archaeologists and anthropologists gather to study the prehistoric remains that have been preserved in the bone-dry climate. Meanwhile, astronomers flock to telescopes, which due to the Atacama’s clear skies and high elevation, offer some of the best views of outer space. Not far from where the scientists work, reminders of Chile’s turbulent past are scattered or buried: skeletons of dead miners, the bodies of political dissidents, and the still-standing buildings General Augusto Pinochet used as a concentration camp. The connection between all these elements becomes clearer as the movie unfolds. The Atacama is what Guzmán calls “A gateway to the past,” where people try to understand human life by sifting through what gets left behind.
Guzmán combines gorgeously photographed shots of the heavens and the earth with long, thoughtful interviews, working his way deliberately beyond the point that the Atacama is mankind’s graveyard. He begins with the men of science, taking a particular interest in one astronomer who philosophizes about the way light travels, and how that means we’re always experiencing the past. Then, as Guzmán shifts his subject to the determined mothers of Pinochet’s “disappeared,” he begins asking those same scientists for their impressions of Chilean history, pushing them away from academic objectivity. Nostalgia For The Light is to some extent an intellectual exercise, and for all its inquiries into the human feeling of loss, it can come off as a little reserved. But it’s also poetic and meditative in a way that never feels pretentious. Often, Guzmán leaves language behind and creates association strictly with visuals. For example, he’ll survey a skull in extreme close-up, such that it looks like an alien landscape. Or he’ll cut between the two sets of people in the Atacama looking for traces of calcium: some in the stars, and some under piles of bloodstained rock.