With what could be seen as a companion piece to his 2011 documentary Nostalgia for the Light, Chilean director Patricio Guzmán returns to UK cinema screens this year with The Pearl Button. An astoundingly beautiful visual essay which revels in the stunning scenery of Chilean Patagonia, it morphs into a harrowing depiction of the nation’s distant and recent past. Nostalgia turned enormous telescopes in the Atacama Desert upwards to plough for secrets in the vastness of space whilst Guzmán dug under its arid surface, seeking those disappeared by the Pinochet regime. The Pearl Button continues in much the same vein, the director persevering with his contemplation of human kind and our place in the universe.
This time he explores the myriad waterways of a rich and verdant archipelago, revealing the ills of colonialism and unspeakable atrocities of a fifteen year dictatorship. Initial shots of the savage beauty of the region point towards the effects climate change may be having here before a far more sinister social critique and painful act of remembrance grips us by the throat. From one drop hidden inside a hand-sized chunk of quartz from the Atacama, water begins to trickle, flow and then cascade in ever increasing waves as Guzmán’s film builds an ominous, chilling momentum. Continuity of image is maintained from Nostalgia as cinematographer Katell Dijan again does sterling work in framing rivers, mountains and glaciers so vividly we can almost reach out and touch them.
Making use of its reflective properties, sky and water are drawn together, a key belief of the first peoples to inhabit this remote and unforgiving land who considered each star in the crystalline sky to represent an ancestor. The sound of rain on a zinc roof, hail crackling on rocks and great fissures splintering ice into shards, teamed with Guzmán’s melodic narration, make the early stages of The Peal Button a striking, lyrical delight for the eyes and ears. Not before long, though, does the director turn his attention to affronting a collective sense of Western colonial shame. The late 1800s saw the first wave of settlers crash onto these peaceful shores, an ancient civilization subjugated, even hunted, to the point of extinction. Testimony from a handful of the remaining direct descendants demonstrate that culture, language and traditions many thousands of years old have mercifully survived.
Bringing themes forward to events that followed the September 1973 coup d’état, the inhuman brutality of the Pinochet years is laid bare with sickening candour. Far from exclusively condemning the national shame felt by a complicit Chilean population, Guzmán’s film poses questions of humanity at large. A button found embedded in an iron bar at the bottom of the sea and one given to a man to entice him onto a boat destined for England to be ‘civilized’ tie together repugnant stories which fill some of the darkest pages of history. The sound of water may have been refreshing, life-giving and jubilant as the film opens, but is deathly upon its conclusion. The Pearl Button constitutes another success for a gifted filmmaker.