THERE ACTUALLY IS NO PRESENT MOMENT, explains an astronomer in Patricio Guzmán’s latest film, Nostalgia for the Light. The Chilean director (The Battle of Chile, The Pinochet Case) once again grapples with time, and how memory affects the present and past. With this film, however, he’s crafted a magnificent meditation on memory by finding the link between two separate and seemingly different subjects: astronomy and human rights.
Nostalgia is set entirely in “the driest place on earth,” Chile’s Atacama Desert, home to some of the world’s most powerful celestial observatories. The Atacama is also where, after Pinochet’s military coup of September 1973, political prisoners were detained in concentration camps and bodies of murdered dissidents dumped and hidden in mass graves.
The dry, translucent air allows astronomers to discover the origins of the universe. It also preserves human remains, including those of Pre-Columbian mummies and 19th century miners.
Guzmán, who narrates his film, begins by exploring his love for astronomy and the wonders to be found in the sky. Guzmán lovingly films the workings of the telescope and interviews the stellar cartographers who map the cosmos.
The astronomers spend their lives looking up and looking back: everything they see is in the past. And they are looking far, far back in time.
This is not the case for the families of the disappeared. In this way Guzmán slowly reveals the driving force behind his film, and the connection to Chile’s recent past. The astronomers are not the only searchers in the Atacama desert.
There are also the women of Calama, an ever-dwindling group who comb the dry desert floor for bone fragments and remains, hoping to find evidence of their lost loved ones.
The astronomers look up, the women of Calama look down, and both groups look back, but with wholly different motivations.
Like an investigative journalist picking away at a story, Guzmán discovers all the people, alongside the astronomers, whose lives are tied to the Atacama: the archeologist who chronicles the pre-Colombian carvings on the rocky plains; and the architect and former dissident who used his drawing skills to memorize exactly, down to the square meter, the dimensions of the compound where prisoners were kept.
There is the young man, also an astronomer, whose mother is a torture survivor and today acts as a counselor to others like her; and the camp survivor who revisits the abandoned 19th century miners’ barracks that was converted to a detention camp. He demonstrates how a group of detainees, guided by a fellow prisoner, educated themselves in the constellations.
They even constructed a crude telescope out of wood to look at the stars. The astronomy “classes” did not last however, and they were ordered to stop, because their torturers believed they could use the constellations to plot their escape.
It all comes back to the stars. As a coda, there is the work one of the visiting scientists whose studies the stuff of star matter and the calcium in our bones. It’s all the same, he says. We are stardust. Is it so very ironic to discover this fact, and in this place, where individuals search for bones and stars and yet are looking for the same thing?
Two final scenes are poignant and pointed: two of the women of Calama are given an opportunity to look through one of the telescopes. Guzmán superimposes stardust floating around them.
The film ends with the twinkling lights of Chile’s modern capital, Santiago. It almost looks like one of the nebulae or galaxies we’ve been gazing at. Every night the center of the universe passes over Santiago, Guzmán narrates, but no one cares to notice. Chile denies its past, unwilling to face recent events and their consequences. It cannot exist, Guzmán says, or move forward, until it does.
Read more about the film and Patricio Guzman at the official site of Icarus Films.