Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Of Stars and Bones: Patricio Guzmán's profound NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT

New Yorkers are blessed this week to have two documen-taries as diverse and humbling as Bill Cunningham New York (covered two days ago) and now the latest exploration of history and memory in Chile from Patricio Guzmán, the filmmaker/poet who has given us The Battle of Chile; Chile, Obstinate Memory; and the documen-tary about Salvador Allende (also covered earlier this week).

His new film NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, which won Best Docu-mentary at last year's European Film Awards, may not actually bring to a close Guzmán's accounting of the ravaging of his birth country by the Pinochet regime (nothing save the filmmaker's own death will shut that door), but it is hard to imagine that he might do anything better, richer or more profound than this new film.

From the metallic sheen of the telescope (below) that opens the movie to the lace napkin and linen tablecloth in the kitchen or the slim, sculpted legs of a wooden chair in the living room that we see soon after -- the objects that begin the film are captured with such attention and love that we feel somehow secure. We're in the Atacama Desert, where the humidity is the lowest of anywhere on our planet and the air is ultra-clear for viewing the stars. Guzmán (shown at left) narrates the film himself, and his soothing, meditative voice, accompanied by a parade of stunning images, tells of the history of this unusual desert (where rain never comes), with its mollusks and meteorites, archeology and (now) astronomy.

The filmmaker speaks first with an astronomer -- a smart, thoughtful fellow who lives and works in the desert -- and who waxes philosophical about everything from the stars to time itself: "Does the present exist?" he asks, after giving us a terrific explanation of why not. "Maybe only in our mind." (So much for that once popular phrase, Be Here Now.) Another man notes that the country of Chile still remains in the grasp of the coup d'etat: "We've hidden away our nearest past, the 19th Century -- and the Indians." He speaks of buried minerals and buried men, as we watch a row of musical spoons waft and sing in the wind and think about what we owe other living humans beings.

A half-hour in, we get the real connection: Near the observatory (above) lies the remains of Chacabuco, the largest concentration camp of the Pinochet regime. We meet a former prisoner from the camp who explains how he and others in a group of prisoners would observe the stars and feel oddly... free. (Until the guards made them stop because they might use those stars to navigate to freedom. As if.)

We learn that the regime buried many of their prisoners here in the surrounding desert. And then, to ensure that the bodies could not be found, identified and the guilty prosecuted, they dug up those corpses, broke them apart and re-buried them. We meet several of the women (below) who now spend their lives digging and searching through the many bones (and bits of bones) for their "disappeared" loved ones. One of these sits in the desert and speaks of finding and then stroking her brothers foot. "We were reuinited. Only then could I take in the fact that he was dead."

We also meet an exiled mother and son, now back in Chile. He's an astronomer, she gives massages to the victims of the torture. Guzmán does not dwell on the atrocities, as we've seen and heard about them previously. Yet through these people and their stories we glimpse quite enough to make this terrible time indelible.

The last story is that of a young female astronomer (above) who could easily stand in for this entire country. Used as a child hostage by the Pinochet regime to get her grandparents to tell the whereabouts of her parents (which they did  in order to save the child's life), she lost both parents and was raised by her grandparents. How the young woman, herself now a mother, has come to terms with all that has happened, how she feels and why, her splendid use of the word "defect," and how, via astronomy and contemplation, she has found her place in the universe -- all this is profoundly important and moving, a privilege to experience.

You will stand up after watching Nostalgia for the Light feeling invigorated and chastened, with the images of the disappeared -- in close-up above, and all together, like some mammoth AIDS quilt made of tiles, below -- an indelible, even welcome presence. Though absent, they are still here.

Many of the people interviewed in the film are not particularly religious, yet their thoughts and ideas stuck me as being as close to the truth about what unites us to each other and to the universe as anything I have yet heard.  If this is not pleasing to the Christian, Jewish and Muslim fundamentalist religions, it is certainly good enough for me. As I hope it will be for you.

Nostalgia for the Light, from Icarus Films, debuts this Friday, March 18, at IFC Center, New York, for an exclusive two-week engagement. For a complete listing of venues -- cities, dates and theaters (14 in the U.S., two in Canada) where you can see this film, click here. Coming from Icarus, of course, there will also, eventually, be a DVD available.

Note: Interested in meeting this wonderful filmmaker? Señor Guzmán will appear in person at IFC Center on Friday, 3/18, and Saturday, 3/19, at the 8:10 shows.

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