About midway through Patricio Guzman’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light, the director/interviewer questions a Chilean astronomer on the link between cosmological discoveries and the long-buried corpses from his country’s Pinochet horrors. After a few moments’ hesitation, the scientist begins, “To compare two completely different things….” Therein lies the problem with this diffuse, frequently maddening work. In lieu of presenting a straightforward treatise on Chilean astronomy or one on the residual effects of Pinochet (either one of which would offer superb possibilities for cinematic exploration), Guzman attempts the seemingly impossible by crisscrossing two subjects that have little to do with one another in an ambitious but unsuccessful quest for profundity.
One cannot blame Guzman for trying, and try he does, straining so hard at times that topical parallels do emerge. But such parallels are fleeting, transient, and insubstantial. Perhaps for that reason, the film repeatedly strikes one as a massive structural contrivance. For example, the director reflects, in passing, on the use of the word “bodies” to describe both constellations and the corpses of political dissidents in the ground. And he manages to locate a couple of Pinochet victims who found solace by gazing at the stars during their decades-long confinement in concentration camps. The documentary as a whole comes nearest to succeeding when it uses each subtopic as a conduit to reflections on memory itself -- for example, the irony that so many Chileans have flocked to observatories in the Atacama Desert to study extraterrestrial phenomena from billions of years ago, yet they have collectively forgotten the terrors of the recent past. Those juxtapositions are hardly adequate enough, however, to make the documentary work overall.
One could argue, of course, that Nostalgia lies closest to the essay film in structure and intent, and that essay films traditionally rely on loose, freewheeling narratives. Perhaps so, but even the finest examples of this form (Orson Welles’ F for Fake, for instance, and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil) have a thematic cohesion sadly missing here.
To its credit, Nostalgia does possess a handful of emotionally overpowering scenes that exclusively address the fallout endured by the Pinochet victims. In its finest sequence, we get an extended interview with a 36-year-old Chilean wife and mother, whose parents were abducted and presumably slaughtered by Pinochet’s minions during the mid-’70s, forcing the then-one-year-old girl into the custody of her grandparents. As the woman describes the sorrows and terrors of her childhood, Guzman cuts to a black-and-white snapshot of her folks -- a sweet-looking couple in their early thirties -- and we instantly get the vileness and evil of the despotic regime responsible for wiping out innocent lives and decimating families such as this one. In another fine episode, a septuagenarian woman expresses such determination to recover her loved ones from the ground that she seems to be operating far past the point of all rationality -- guided only by bewilderment and heartbreak.
These components of the film hint at the documentary that might have emerged from Guzman had he decided to focus solely on the Pinochet fallout. As evidenced in his 2004 film Salvador Allende, the director is a spectacular talent, but Nostalgia for the Light lacks the thematic cohesion and razor-sharp focus of that earlier nonfiction work. This is a clear example of a film with admirable intentions that, nevertheless, far overreaches its grasp.
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- Released: 2010
- Review: About midway through Patricio Guzman’s documentary Nostalgia for the Light, the director/interviewer questions a Chilean astronomer on the link between cosmological discoveries and the long-buried corpses from his country’s Pinochet horrors. After a few mo… (more)