In Patricio Guzman’s arresting documentary Nostalgia for the Light, a telling comparison is drawn between the practice of astronomy and the process of remembering. In the case of Chile’s Atacama desert, where most of this film is set, astronomers gaze at the stars trying to figure out the past, while the enduring relatives of ‘the disappeared’ – long lost victims of Augusto Pinochet’s regime – dig forlornly in the desert in the hope of uncovering the splintered bones of their loved ones. One past is searched for, while the country does its best to forget the other.
This is a personal, enlightening, political film, and one that isn’t to afraid to sometimes step back and let its beautifully composed imagery do the talking for it. At other times Guzman’s interviewees give us candid accounts of what they’re doing out in the desert, backing up the film’s thematic considerations and lending it a real emotional core. It starts off slowly, establishing its visual themes, before allowing its human heart to emerge. In one scene late on, when the two converge, there is a real sense of release.
The political message of the film is strong but also understated; Guzman isn’t interested in giving us a history lesson. We see the after effects of Chile’s recent past in real terms – in the lives of those who live in its shadow, and do not fully understand it. The vast expanse of the world’s driest place – captured here in all its arid intensity – makes for a fascinating and eerie backdrop.