Doc of the Day: Nostalgia for the Light Review - Dan Schindel

Doc of the Day: Nostalgia for the Light

Posted in Days of Docs by - December 10, 2011

Dir. Patricio Guzman, 2010, 90 min

The word “nostalgia” is tainted for me. I hear it and I think of one of the dozen movie versions of older films / television shows or board games or 80’s toy lines or comic strips that are coming out in the near future. But this film helped me remember that there are people out there less shallow than American moviegoers; people who have suffered true loss and feel sincere nostalgia for what they once had. I’m privileged; I yearn for the days when PBS aired Wishbone. The people of Chile wistfully think of when their family members were still with them, before they were brutally murdered. This isn’t just a story about the past, though; this documentary will make you rethink how you think about the past. The beginning of the film has one of those wonderful little mind-blowing moments, when a scientist points out that we never truly experience the present. Everything that is happening has actually already happened, a millisecond quicker than our minds can keep up with it.

The Atacama Desert is the driest place on Earth. The past exists in three layers here. On the surface of the desert are remnants of the earliest signs of human civilization in the world. Ten-thousand-year-old settlements and rock paintings abound. Beneath the ground, the bodies of people killed by the Pinochet regime have been buried. And above this land stretches the clearest view of the heavens on the planet. No clouds, no cities, no humidity. The night above is an astounding ocean of cosmic jewels. It is the past of the Universe itself (remember, all we see in the sky is really billions-years-old light).

There are people in the Atacama examining all three of these layers of history. Archaeologists study the ancient remains. Bereaved family of victims search for some piece of their loved ones in the ground. Astronomers have taken advantage of the unrivaled view to set up several observatories. And the lines between these explorers of the past overlap. One archeologist was a held prisoner by the military junta. One astronomer’s parents were among the victims of the regime. Director Patricio Guzman has tapped into an amazing common thread of humanity. All of these people look for answers in the past to questions in the present, and this one place has drawn their disparate pursuits together. It’s a brilliant linking of the stellar and the personal, where the origins of the universe and the search for a single body are given equal weight. A drawing of a llama is as important as the Big Bang, and the expansion of all that exists is as small and intimate as the discovery of a brother’s skull.

I think this may be the best Werner Herzog movie not directed by Werner Herzog. It’s quite reminiscent of Encounters at the End of the World, what with the isolated, extreme setting and similar themes of cosmic observation. But besides the unique subject matter, Guzman’s narration is highly evocative of Herzog’s style. He’s very comfortable with florid, wordy prose that borders on the edge of purple, but which sings the way he reads it. He knows how to match grand material with a grand presentation. The musical score is lovely; it’s full of rich, dramatic strings that raise the tone even higher. Too many documentaries that aren’t directly about music have entirely functional soundtracks, and it’s a treat to hear a doc that knows how much great sound can add to atmosphere.

And the film is a feast for the eyes as well. That’s generally a given when dealing with movies that look into space, but every shot of this film could be framed. Jaw-dropping time lapse footage depicts a galaxy floating over the desert. The shifting of the mechanisms of a telescope is a mesmerizing ballet. And even on a visual level, Guzman forges thematic links between the different levels of history. An artistic tribute to still-missing people resembles an ancient rock painting. Patterns blown into the desert dust could pass for etchings of the heavenly bodies. My favorite is the use of swirling dust motes to evoke stardust.

But Guzman’s cinematographic skill exceeds merely presenting us with pretty pictures. The first ten minutes of the movie are bravado storytelling in action. Using only still shots of the desert and photographs from the Pinochet era, with no living person appearing onscreen, accompanied by his narration, Guzman is able to breathe life into the nonliving. He catches and grips your attention without any human interest at all. Usually “wallpapering,” reading over static images, is a disastrous mode of exposition. But here, the introduction is a wondrous tone poem of loss, as Guzman reminisces about the days before the army coup and his own love of astronomy. He knows exactly how to balance between allowing the image to speak for itself and when to add his own comment.

Nostalgia for the Light is my most pleasant surprise of this year. I knew little about it going in, and so was absolutely blown away by what I found. This is a movie that makes you really think, about life, the universe, and everything. It pretzel’s your brain in such a sublime way, but also twists your heartstrings as well. It’s a rare and special film that manages that kind of accomplishment.

This post was written by
Dan Schindel is a writer and editor. He lives and works in Los Angeles.

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