Thursday, March 17, 2011

Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light

Chile’s Atacama Desert might be the closest place on Earth to the world of Frank Herbert’s Dune novels. It is not just the arid sandy environment, but also the retro-futuristic looking observatories that dot the Atacama skyline. Extremely photogenic, they provide some striking visuals in Patricio Guzmán’s docu-essay Nostalgia for the Light (trailer here), winner of the Best Documentary Grand Prix at the 2010 European Film Awards, which opens this Friday in New York.

The Atacama has the world’s clearest skies and lowest humidity. It is a place uniquely suited for stargazing. However, for the essentially enslaved miners of the Nineteenth Century, it was an unforgiving locale. It was not any more pleasant for the political prisoners who were moved into their former digs during the tenure of Pinochet’s authoritarian government. Ironically, the Atacama’s low humidity and complete absence of precipitation are ideal for preserving bodies interred in its salty sands. As a result, while the astronomers study the heavens, committed family members scour the sands, hoping to find remnants of loved ones.

Truly, Nostalgia is meditative to a fault. At its finest, Guzmán approximates the vibe of Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, allowing the astronomers to contemplate the nature of the universe in appropriately evocative settings. However, Guzmán overplays the metaphor of each plumbing the past, when comparing the survivors and archaeologists searching for bones to the astronomers recording astral light traveling through time and space from long dead stars.

A man of the hard left, Guzmán professes concern Chileans are deliberately oblivious to their own recent history. Yet, it is precisely the relatively recent revelations of the extent to which Allende and the KGB were in intimate collaboration that is scrupulously ignored by the media. Indeed, Pinochet clearly was not fooling around, but Chileans might have had it far worse. After recently screening films from and about North Korea for the KAFFNY, one suspects Kim Jong-il would consider the Pinochet regime rather indulgent for allowing the children and parents of his prisoners to remain at liberty. Everything is relative, even repression.

Guzmán and cinematographer Katell Djian capture some truly striking imagery. Indeed, it works best as an exotic travelogue, much like the real life science fiction of Into Eternity, which tours Finland’s Onkalo nuclear waste repository buried deep beneath the Earth’s surface. Ultimately, Nostalgia’s burnished look is impressive, but it is not nearly as profound as its accolades suggest. It opens this Friday (3/18) at the IFC Center.