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Nostalgia for the Light
Le Monde Review
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Wednesday, October 27, 2010
★★★ Excellent


Patricio Guzman is one of the most important cinematographic chroniclers of contemporary Chilean history. We know at what price this work was made possible. Imprisoned by the Pinochet regime during the 1973 coup díétat, when ultimately released, he chose exile in Paris, like his compatriot Raoul Ruiz (both were born in 1941,) the master of baroque fiction. Yet as far as Guzmanís concerned, he has not stopped returning to his country through political documentary, from The Battle of Chile (1979) to Salvador Allende (2004).

At 69 years old, he has now made Nostalgia for the Light, a totally unexpected film, which bends the genre in order to better bring it to poetic heights. This film is not only Guzmanís masterpiece; it is one of the most beautiful cinematographic efforts we have seen for a long time. Its complex canvas is woven with the greatest simplicity. There are three interweaving levels: considerations on astronomical research, an archeology of Indian foundations and a memoire of the dictatorship.

One place groups together these three palpable levels: the Atacama Desert. Nostalgia for the Light transforms this place, reputed to be the most arid and the least conducive to life on our planet, into unbelievably fertile ground. Because there we find at once the greatest astronomical observatory in the world, the remarkably preserved vestiges of native civilizations and the corpses of political prisoners who were assassinated during the dictatorship in the surrounding camps, before being scattered in the sand. Each of these realities prompts a task of particular exploration. The astronomer searches the sky, the archeologist scours the earth, the wives of the disappeared relentlessly dig through the bowels of the ground for twenty-eight years.

The genius of the film, which is inspired by the genius of the place, consists of relating these searches, like the characters that embody them, to one another. Gaspar the astronomer, Lautaro the archeologist, and widows Victoria and Violeta share the same obsession with origins, whether itís the Universe, or civilization, or evil and death. Whether they are gazing at the stars or have their hands in the sand, they experience the same uncertainty, the same feeling of relativity and precariousness, the same persistence in searching for light in the profound darkness that surrounds humanity. This makes them invaluable and deeply moving characters to us.

Nostalgia for the Light nevertheless owes its success to formal work which engages more than its characters: an unusual science of montage, a magic of association between things and beings, an art of bringing to light unsuspected connections. Mummies and telescopes, marbles and galaxies, blue skies and darkness, traces of the past and projections of the future, infinite pain and sidereal peace enter here into a dance of the poetic spirit that celebrates them, somewhere between 2001: A Space Odyssey, by Stanley Kubrick, and Dream of Light by Victor Erice.

The film also reveals the objective links that exist between these disparate realities, through other characters. This is the case for Luis, a former prisoner who owes his survival to the passion for astronomy that was instilled in him by the scientists in prison. It is also the case for Valentina, a young astronomer, who in observing the cycle of the Universe draws a sufficient reason for appreciating life after both of her parents were assassinated when she was just a child. We have here, in the trembling image of this young orphan standing with her child, the ultimate beauty of the film: to draw, from a bleak land and an inhuman history, the force to search again, and thus to hope again.

For forty years, Patricio Guzman has had to struggle every inch of the way, with a vivid memory and intimate suffering to reach this work of cosmic serenity, of luminous intelligence, with a sensitivity that could melt stone. At such a level, the film becomes more than a film. An insane accolade to mankind, a stellar song for the dead, a life lesson. Silence and respect.

—Juan Mandelbaum

Related Links:
Film page
Film Credits
Patricio Guzman Filmmaker Page

Theatrical trailer

Three video clips

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