by Miguel E. Rodriguez

Director: Patricio Guzmán
My Rating: 10/10
Rotten Tomatometer: 100% Certified Fresh

PLOT: This award-winning documentary juxtaposes the search for answers about the history of the cosmos with Chilean women searching the Atacama Desert for the remains of loved ones killed by a despotic regime decades earlier.

I am going to look at the stars.  They are so far away, and their light takes so long to reach us…all we ever see of stars are their old photographs. – Dr. Manhattan, Watchmen

If Nostalgia for the Light has one flaw, I might point to its rather abrupt ending.  It comes so quickly it almost cuts off the sentence being spoken by the film’s narrator.  Perhaps it’s metaphorical.  The film is over, but there is no resolution.  The riddles of the cosmos remain unanswered, and the bodies of cherished loved ones remain undiscovered.  If they don’t get a resolution, why should we?

The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the driest places on earth, with an average annual rainfall of 0.5 inches.  With its virtually zero percent humidity, the skies remain remarkably clear at night, making it one of the prime spots on the planet for astronomical observatories.  From these perches, astronomers use massive visible light and radio telescopes to probe the outer reaches of the cosmos, searching for clues to the origins of life, the universe, and everything.  (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

One astronomer points out that many times, when science finally answers a question, two more pop up to replace it.  He says some people even consider it an exercise in futility.  If every answer only reveals more questions, why bother?  You might as well ask NASA why we sent men to the moon.  Because it’s in man’s nature to know, to try to find out what’s over the next hill or what is beyond the farthest galaxy.

Another scientist explains that the calcium in our very bones literally comes from the stars.  Everything on earth today is descended in one form or another from the Big Bang.  Radio telescopes can measure the calcium levels in distant stars.  (Calcium in stars?  You learn something new every day.)  That calcium came from the Big Bang, and so did Earth’s.  As Carl Sagan said, “We are star stuff.”  We may die, and we will.  The stuff in our bodies remains, and will eventually help a tree to grow, or a vegetable, and so on and so on.  The circle of life, as it were.

All this information in the film is presented in a very straightforward without flash or fanfare, at least in terms of the narration.  Visually, the filmmakers use great editing with the interiors of huge observatory domes and the immense telescopes within, cut together with stunning vistas of starfields, including shots of our own Milky Way.  Indeed, the film’s narration informs us that, night after night, “slowly, impassively, the center of the galaxy passes over Santiago.”

But this is not simply an overblown episode of “Nova.”  Nostalgia for the Light is divided almost schizophrenically into two parts bumping into each other for the duration of the film.  It’s this second part that gives Nostalgia its heart and soul.  I’ve been thinking about it ever since I finished watching it this afternoon.

In 1974, Augusto Pinochet rose to power in Chile.  His dictatorship lasted for 17 years.  During that time, he imprisoned as many as 80,000 people in concentration camps in the Atacama Desert, killing anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 dissidents.  To cover his tracks, he ordered his military to truck the bodies into the desert and dump them in unmarked mass graves.  It was rumored that he also had many of them thrown into the ocean.  Families were torn apart.  One young woman in the film tells how, when she was 12 months old, her grandparents were forced to reveal the whereabouts of her mother and father, using her as leverage.

For decades since then, women have come to the desert with spades and pickaxes, searching the dry ground for clues to the whereabouts of their loved ones.  The desert is enormous, and there are very few of these women.  In the film, they talk about the people who try to convince them of the futility of their actions.  Not just their friends or family, but public figures, politicians.  They are embarrassing.  They are dredging up a painful past others would prefer to forget.

One of these women wishes the giant telescopes on the distant hilltops could be designed to see through the ground instead of into space, so they wouldn’t have to dig.  They could find the secrets of their past much more quickly.  But of course, that’s exactly what the telescopes are designed to do.  They’re just pointing in a different direction, reaching to a far more distant past.

When I was younger, I was of the belief that a good documentary had to be completely impartial.  It simply documented what was happening without commentary from the filmmakers.  You could use editing to make a point, but it was against the “rules” to editorialize your subject.  And never use a narrator.  Let the audience make up its own mind, right?  The fancy word for this kind of strictly observational filmmaking is “cinéma verité.”

Nowadays, with most modern documentaries I’ve seen, the strictures of “cinéma verité” have gone by the wayside.  Instead of being a passive observer, the director is free to edit together disparate footage and interviews to make their point of view heard loud and clear.  This director, Patricio Guzmán, is using this documentary as a tool for social activism, or at least awareness.  I wouldn’t normally care for this kind of in-your-face, this-is-my-point documentaries.  I have never been a fan of Michael Moore’s films (at least not anything after Roger and Me), and I think Morgan Spurlock’s films are nothing but glorified Jackass stunts.

But Nostalgia for the Light affected me in a way I did not expect.  There is a sequence where an astronomer explains how “the present” isn’t technically real.  Light from the sun takes eight minutes to reach earth.  The light we see from the distant stars are years, decades, centuries old.  What we see in the sky is not the stars’ true position.  It’s where they were years and years ago.  It’s almost as if we’re looking at the memory of light.  This concept, which I’ve heard before, simply boggled my mind this time around.  I don’t know how to explain it.  And then when the film draws parallels between the astronomers searching for answers in the cosmos to the sad, determined women searching for closure in the desert, and the perceived futility of both ventures in the minds of so many…it’s very difficulty to put into words.  I felt that I was watching, or perceiving, something that transcended my poor abilities to describe it.

The astronomers search for answers to better our world and themselves.  The women in the desert search to bring closure to their lives and to the lives of the ones they lost.  They cannot forget, as so many in their country have willingly forgotten.

Director Guzmán also narrates the film, and I believe the crux of the entire film can be explained in one of his lines: “…those who have a memory are able to live in the fragile present moments.  Those who have none don’t live anywhere.”

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