A Chilean miners' graveyard in Nostalgia for the Light

What do Augusto Pinochet, archaeology, and radio-astronomy have to do with each other? More than you might imagine, as you’ll learn from Chilean director Patricio Guzman’s brilliant new documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, which opens this Friday, May 13 at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas after premiering at the 54th San Francisco International Film Festival.

This is a film that conceals its hand brilliantly. First we see images of glistening gears, wheels, and belts quietly working together to some mysterious purpose. As the camera pulls back, more is revealed and the machine begins to resemble a gleaming Rube Goldberg-style contraption. And finally, the truth is revealed: we’re looking at a telescope.

Accompanied by the elegiac strains of a score composed by musicians Miranda and Tobar, Nostalgia for the Light proceeds to dazzle the viewer with detailed close-ups of the surface of the moon, still photographs of the furthest reaches of the universe, and stunning time-lapse photography of some of the bluest, most translucent skies imaginable. So far, so Discovery Channel: this is the sort of stuff you might see on one of the Chabot Space and Science Center’s IMAX screens.

Ever so slowly, however, the film’s focus shifts from science towards philosophy and politics. An astronomer holds forth on the meaning, reality, and measurement of time, whilst Guzman’s narration binds together tales of his childhood, the youthful hopes of the Salvador Allende era, and the discovery during the 1960s that Chile’s Atacama Desert was the best spot on Earth from which to observe the universe.

The Atacama is also the driest place on Earth, an arid wasteland bereft of both humidity and life, and aptly described by Guzman as “a condemned land, permeated with salt.” This sterile desert—which appears in satellite photographs as a white spot—is as alien a landscape as Mars (it has, in fact, ‘played’ the Red Planet in both films and television).

But the Atacama is not quite as empty as it appears. Beneath the ground are meteorites that exert magnetic influence; atop it are ancient Indian fortresses, pre-Columbian rock carvings, and abandoned mining camps—one of which was converted by Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet into the Chacabuco concentration camp in 1973. This is the place where Chile buries the history it would rather forget.

Here lie the mummified remains of miners and political prisoners. Today, the desert hosts observatories from which scientists keep watching the skies, whilst sisters and wives of the disappeared search for the remains of loved ones murdered by the Pinochet regime. These congruent searches—one probing the mysteries of the furthest reaches of time and space for lessons about life on Earth, the other digging up the embarrassing secrets of recent history—suggest that the past is, sometimes by choice, an undiscovered country.

Guzman believes, however, that “memory has a gravitational force…it is constantly attracting us”. This force compels us to search for the truth, and his film is a poetic tribute to those whose search never ends, regardless of where it may take them. It’s a marvelous, surprising, and visually impressive film. If you enjoyed Queen of the Sun during its recent run at the Elmwood, I highly recommend you make time for Nostalgia for the Light.

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly.

Freelancer John Seal is Berkeleyside’s film critic. A movie connoisseur with a penchant for natty hats who lives in Oakland, John writes a weekly film recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as...