Winner of the prestigious award for European Film Academy Documentary of the Year, prolific Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán returns to UK cinemas this week with Nostalgia for the Light (2010). On the surface, Guzmán’s latest is a handsome ode to the astronomical observatories situated in the vast, altiplanos of the Atacama Desert. Yet buried underneath its celestial skies lies a melancholic reminder of the brutal Pinochet dictatorship that once tore the South American country asunder.
The otherworldly Atacama Desert is the driest stretch of land on Planet Earth, home to little biological life (with the exception of the odd lost llama or vicuña), and is perhaps the nearest we humans have to our very own slice of Mars. Its translucent sky makes it prime real estate for space laboratories and observatories, with astronomers from all over the world flocking to the Chilean highlands to take advantage of its breathtaking stellar vistas.
Tragically, the Atacama is also home to the eerily-preserved bodies of thousands of political prisoners executed at the request of the infamous General Pinochet during his tyrannical dictatorship, which began with the military coup d’état of September 1973 – only coming to an end in 1988 following an organised plebiscite. Whilst the world’s greatest astronomical minds gaze up at the many planets, stars and galaxies out on display, a group of bereft women continue their stoic, ritualistic search for the lost remains of their murdered loved ones.
Guzmán has done a truly exemplary job of balancing these two central preoccupations within Nostalgia for the Light, deftly interweaving humanity’s ancient extra-terrestrial origins and ever-growing curiosity towards the vast expanses of space with the not-so-distant echoes of a nation gripped by a ruthless military regime. By utilising a Herzogian blend of existentialist narration with the addition of numerous well-structured interviews (both academic and candid), Guzmán opens up the floor – and skies – to a frank and painfully honest discourse on Chile’s past, present and future.
The film’s somewhat lackadaisical pace, combined with its weighty scientific and socio-political subject matter, may put off those hoping for a bright and breezy journey across space and time. For those who like a bit of auterism to their astronomy, however, Guzmán’s mesmeric Nostalgia for the Light tells us far more about what’s happening/has happened down here that what’s transpiring up there. Like any hardened star-gazer, a keen eye and attention to detail are a perquisite for any audience member looking to get maximum enjoyment here.