Nostalgia For The Light

The Reel Deal


A Reel Deal Film Review

Film Insight by Tyler Malone

April 2011

Reel Rating: 5 out of 5


Existence is about drawing connections–that is what we do as humans. It is how we navigate this universe, by making connections and associations. Sometimes our connections are strong and logical; other times though, the connections drawn are pieced together in the most superficial of fashions and held together by the smallest of sinews. Oftentimes, when documentaries try to be about more than one topic and attempt, through various connections, to make some sort of philosophical and/or poetic gesture, they stop feeling revelatory and start feeling overreaching. Not so with Patricio Guzmán’s stunning new documentary Nostalgia for the Light. It takes two completely different stories–whose only real surface-level, topical connection seems to be that they have been happening in the same place–and he interweaves them seamlessly. I went in to this documentary on desaparecidos and astronomy thinking: “There is no way this is going to work.”  But it does, and does so brilliantly.

Nostalgia for the Light opens with beautiful views of the cosmos.  Then, there we are in the vast Chilean Atacama desert–the only brown spot on the globe (when viewed from space)–with a group of astronomers who search for answers to the great mysteries of life by looking up and out.  There in the desert are the world’s largest telescopes, and some of the greatest astronomers from around the globe use that quintessential site to view the stars and to contemplate the big questions. These astronomers are the first group of “searchers” we encounter.

The other major “searchers” in Nostalgia for the Light are the relatives of various Chilean desaparecidos (the disappeared political prisoners of Pinochet), who are looking for the remains of those missing kinsmen of theirs. They wander the desert sifting the sand and digging into the earth, finding small, unidentifiable pieces of bone, and very little else. They want closure, they want answers–but, unsurprisingly, these elude them. Whereas the astronomers look up and out from that Chilean desert, the heartbroken family-members look down and in to that selfsame desert, but they are both ironically searching for the same thing: answers to the mysteries of the past.

By looking up at the stars, the astronomers are automatically looking into the past. When we see a star, we see it as it was a long time ago. Light takes time to get to us, so whatever we see has long since happened. One of the astronomers explains that actually everything we see is past. When we wave our hand in front of our face, we see it as it was a fraction of a fraction of a second ago, rather than as it is in that moment. The light takes time to be viewed by us, even if it is almost instantaneous, it is not instantaneous. And, on top of that, even our brains take time to process such things, so that slows the whole process down even more. In a way there really is no present that can be perceived.

Our conscious perceptions of things, of happenings, of life, are always late to the party. This gap breeds mystery, uncertainty, doubt. What we view is always the remains of a past vision, and what we think is always the remains of a past thought. At one point in Nostalgia for the Light, there is a glimpse of a number of unclaimed bodies of unknown persons (desaparecidos), and the documentary voiceover calls these “remains of remains.” In a way, that is what everything is (when perceived). All we can ever perceive are just remains of remains–removed from the present, removed from any sense of absolute reality or truth. And yet this need to perceive, this human longing to know and to have some sense of closure and objective understanding, is what keeps us going and what drives us (even if it is an ultimately unfulfillable urge). These are the issues of human existence that Nostalgia for the Light explores, but the film does so in a much more fascinating and subtle way than I am capable of achieving here in just a few short paragraphs of a film review. This is an absolutely amazing documentary though, that will touch you emotionally, and provoke you intellectually.

Nostalgia for the Light is a film written and directed by Patricio Guzmán. In Chile’s Atacama Desert, astronomers peer deep into the cosmos in search for answers concerning the origins of life. Nearby, a group of women sift through the sand searching for body parts of loved ones, dumped unceremoniously by Pinochet’s regime.

Written by Tyler Malone

Image Courtesy of Icarus Films

Design by Jillian Mercado

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