Review: Nostalgia for the Light

Set in the Atacama desert in Chile, Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light is a beautiful and emotive film that introduces us to the importance of astronomy to his country, and the relevance it has to its turbulent past.

Using the desert as a microcosm to explore Chile’s past, present and future and beyond that to the universe itself, the film takes us on a journey of ideas and investigation, all of which circle back to the desert.

The film begins by showing one of Atacama’s many telescopes. The desert is one of the world’s centres for astronomers and using this uniquely humidity-free environment, with the clearest views of the stars, has created thousands of Chilean astromony enthusiasts. Through Guzmán’s own voiceover we learn the experience of being a child in Chile and the relevance, and importance, of astronomy to the culture.

Completely devoid of life, the Atacama desert has no animal, plant or bird life. Previously a trade route, it is permeated with salt and minerals. Meteorites buried deep under the rocks still have an effect on compasses and, above them, just below the cracked surface, are petrified fish and mollusks. Layer by layer, Guzman guides us through the desert’s history.

Through interviews with an astromoner and archaeologist, both working in the desert, Guzmán introduces two of the main themes of the film: time and history. The astronomer’s main work consists of searching for origins. Trawling through billions of years for answers, he explains in fascinating how the present simply doesn’t exist and how we are always in the past. The paradox of the desert is then introduced by the archaeologist: that astronomy is so important to Chile, yet its more recent past is concealed due to the coup d’etat and subsequent dictatorship.

This guides us back to the relevancy of Atacama and the introduction to Luis and Miguel, two political prisoners who had been held in the Chacabuca concentration camp in the middle of this barren land. A former mine, the camp still exists, and shots of the dilapadated buildings standing in silence are stunning and haunting. Luis describes an astronomer also detained at the camp who taught the other prisoners how to build a makeshift telescope and to appreciate the stars above them and the freedom within.

Architect Miguel, possibly the most fascinating character of the film for me, memorised every inch of the camp, each night mapping out a section in his head, drawing the layout, and then shredding his drawing for fear of being caught. He has since produced incredible illustrations of every aspect of the camp, this vivid and honed memory being one of the only remaining records of the camp. This importance of painful memory is made more poignant as we learn Miguel’s wife is suffering from Alzheimers and losing hers.

The microcosm of the desert as a representation of the situation in Chile is a beautiful way of taking a country’s history and problems far beyond a currents affairs-style film to a beautiful and highly emotive portrait of a country and its past and present problems. The section showing the many women who search for their disappeared relatives, many of whom were killed and buried in the desert, is heartbreaking and explores the idea of collective loss, and memory as sole record, in a way that you are left with for a long time.

There is a lot of talk these days about hybrid documentaries and I would say this would be my ideal kind. Guzmán’s considered artistry combines many genres of subject and theme to create a beautiful film that has real importance historically and culturally and leaves you asking questions about future issues.