Saturday, November 22, 2014

Searching the Past

Film: Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light)
Format: DVD from NetFlix on laptop.

It wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest that of all of the films on the latest 1001 Movies list, Nostalgia de la Luz (Nostalgia for the Light) was the one I was most excited about seeing. I had never heard of this film before the 11th Edition was released, but as soon as I looked into it, I was interested. I’m a space geek, and a big chunk of this film is about astronomy and the telescopes in the Atacama Desert in Chile. I am convinced that no other science contains the potential for beauty like astronomy does. There’s a portion of this film that is also akin to archaeology, another interest of mine. Put two of my out-of-field academic interests in the same place, and you’ve got my attention.

But, of course, Nostalgia de la Luz is about so much more than just astronomy. Forty years ago, Chile was the site of one of the most brutal and terrible regime changes in modern history. Thousands of people were rounded up into concentration camps for political reasons and many of them were killed. It is the Atacama Desert that is key to both of these stories.

The Atacama is the driest non-polar region of the planet, with some areas receiving as little as 1-3ml of precipitation per year. Because there is virtually no cloud cover ever and no way for people to live there, it makes the desert a nearly perfect place for earthbound observatories. Additionally, the Atacama became a natural place for political prisoners of General Pinochet to be held, since escape would be that much more difficult with no water and no food (since nothing lives in this desert). The almost total lack of humidity has the unique property of mummifying the corpses of those who die here.

The film shifts between these two disparate stories, spending some time looking at the observatories and the fantastic photography that comes from them and some time with the survivors of the prison camps. There’s a connection here in the sense that one of the prisoners taught the others astronomy as a way to keep their minds active; they studied during the day and observed the stars at night. Eventually, the astronomy lessons were ended by the Pinochet government since the thinking was that knowledge of constellations could give them enough information to successfully escape.

In the second half of the film, part of the narrative shifts to women who search through the desert for the mummified remains of their loved ones killed some 40 years earlier during the coup. A great deal is made of the idea of searching through the past for answers. This is easy to see in terms of the women who search the desert, sifting sands to find any trace of the people who have been lost. However, in a very real sense, astronomers are exploring the past as well. The light they observe through their telescopes is thousands, sometimes millions or hundreds of millions of years old, the only remains from stars long dead.

For the viewer, Nostalgia de la Luz is an exercise in both the similarity of the two searches for the past and the contrast in what we are shown. Much of the film consists of the staggering images of distant galaxies and nebulae, pictures of indescribable beauty and color. These shots are contrasted with images of the bodies left in the desert, preserved in grotesque positions of pain and torture. This contrast between such beauty and such terrible images is a great deal of what makes the film work at all.

The problem here, and it is a real problem, is that Nostalgia de la Luz feels like a cobble. Director Patricio Guzman does his level best to unite these two stories as best he can, making as many connections as possible concerning these searches through the past, one academic and one political and far more desperate. But the connections, despite how carefully Guzman tries to make them, are tenuous at best. It feels very much as if Guzman wanted to make a film about the search for the missing people and bodies and also wanted to make a film about astronomy, but decided he could only make a single film, so he glued them together.

In other words, I wanted to like this a lot more than I ended up liking it. There’s a great deal of both passion and compassion evident here. Guzman treats all of his subjects with a great deal of respect and the women in particular with tremendous empathy, but it holds together far less well than I would like. It’s difficult to say that I’m disappointed in it, but I kind of am. It’s worth seeing for the spectacular photography and because the story of these desperate women needs to be told. But really, they need their own story, not a fragile connection to the story of the universe as a whole.

For what it’s worth, though, I could look at pictures of space and distant galaxies all day.

Why to watch Nostalgia de la Luz: Because astronomy is the most beautiful of the sciences.
Why not to watch: Because politics is the worst of humanity.


  1. I haven't seen this movie, but based on your review, I'd venture that one problem with connecting/contrasting the horrible terrestrial with the glorious celestial is that there's a risk that the cosmic perspective might diminish the human one: what is human suffering but a little thing in the face of all that intergalactic glory? I doubt that's the message the director wanted to send, but based on how you say he put the film together, such an inadvertent diminishment seems at least conceivable.

    Of course, a more charitable interpretation of the message the director was trying to get across is that he was striving for something like Carl Sagan's much-beYouTubed recitation of that passage from his Pale Blue Dot, in which Sagan is at pains to highlight the fact that humanity is but a "thin film of life" on the surface of a tiny world, so how vain and silly we are when we strive to dominate, temporarily, small patches of that sand-grain of real estate. How venal we appear when we act less than nobly against the backdrop of the immensity of this marvelous universe. That message might be closer to what the director was trying to convey: that we need to be worthy of this cosmos.

    1. It's perhaps startling that the director seems to avoid going in this direction at all. It ends up being a treatise more or less on the value of discovering and understanding our past, or in the case of the disappeared victims of Pinochet, with coming to terms with what happened and not allowing ourselves to forget it. Guzman's point seems to be that our past contains both beauty and horror and that it behooves us to remember both because both are important.

  2. Your last two major paragraphs about it being a cobble and that the director obviously wanted to do something on both, perfectly describes my reaction to the film, too. I also ended up being a little disappointed with it. I watched the shorts on the DVD, all of which concentrated on the astronomy, and I wished they had been in the movie.

    1. It really would be better as two separate movies. Then again, as two movies, neither one would feel "important" enough to merit inclusion in the 1001 Movies list.

  3. Wow, the reviewer missed the point of this film in a most spectacular way!

    1. Wow, the commenter certainly didn't help with a hit-and-run comment like this one!

  4. Best Chilean film I've seen since "Bring Me the Head of Machine-Gun Girl."