‘Nostalgia for the Light’ Stuns with the Beauty and the Awful

Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010) opens not with people, but with artistic cinematography and contrapuntal sound of heavy equipment shifting, turning, rotating. There is no narration, no scored music — just the rhythms of the telescope moving. Only as the shots shift to objects within a house does Guzmán’s voiceover begin.

Nostalgia for the Light tells two stories bound by the same place, the Atacama Desert in Chile. One story, the one about the stars, looks up. The other story, the one about victims and prisoners, looks down. According to the poetic voiceover, the desert is a “vast open book of memory, page by page.”

With its zero humidity, the desert is home to the largest telescope in the world. Astronomers use it to answer questions about the universe, matter, and humanity.

The desert also is home to abandoned mines, concentration camps, and mass graves. Women look for human bones among the ruins, hoping to find their loved ones who were killed during the 1970s.

History and memory link these two groups, a point that Guzmán develops through a handful of chosen interviews with relatives, camp survivors, and other scientists. Even though their paths don’t cross, these groups both work in the past because, according to astronomer Gaspar Galaz, “The present doesn’t exist.” A gap of time and distance always divides a phenomenon’s origin and its perception.

Guzmán’s documentary is both beautiful and awful. The beautiful comes through in the meditative narration, the gorgeous cinematography, and the thoughtful sound. The awful comes through in the question of a country needing to reconcile with its past of those tortured and killed and with the gaps those undocumented deaths left behind. The overall result is a stunning documentary.

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