Milos Stehlik reviews Patricio Guzmán's new film ‘Nostalgia for the Light’

July 8, 2011

By Milos Stehlik

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Nostalgia for the Night (Nostalgia de la luz) is a cinematic essay about how we view the galaxies, and how we view history.

Nostalgia for the Light starts today at the Gene Siskel Film Center and runs through July 14th. The film retrospective, The Probing Eye of Patricio Guzmán, begins at the Siskel Center on July 17th and runs through August 3rd.


If you really want to see the stars — go to Chile. Many of the world's best space observatories are situated there. The altitude and quality of light offer the clearest view of the galaxies. Nostalgia for the Light, the new film by Chilean documentarian Patrizio Guzman, explores the cold, awesome beauty of the galaxies as seen from observatories in Chile’s vast Atacama Desert. Known as the driest place on earth, it’s just west of the Andes mountains.

But secrets revealed to observers by the high-powered telescopes in the Atacama Desert parallel secrets hidden in the dry desert ground: the remains of Pinochet's concentration camps. Mothers, daughters and relatives return, day after day, to sift through the desert in search for their loved-ones’ remains. The harsh desert sun keeps human remains intact -- the desert also preserves intact the remains of pre-Columbian mummies, 19th century explorers, as well as the remains of the political prisoners "disappeared" by the Chilean army after the military coup in September, 1973.

Patrizio Guzman is 70 years old, and almost all of his films have, as their central theme, the political tragedy of his country which culminated in the death of its president, Salvador Allende, and which was followed by the brutal military dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet.

Guzman's film trilogy, The Battle of Chile, was one of the first films to bring to light this grotesque history in a powerful statement. Though clearly the original intent of The Battle of Chile was to mobilize resistance to Pinochet’s reign of terror on Chile, the films still resonate today as a powerful and brave historical testament. Guzman was no more and no less than a witness to his troubled time. The Battle of Chile was followed by films like Salvador Allende, a moving portrait of the late President who was Guzman's friend, and the films Chile: The Obstinate Memory and The Pinochet Case.  These films endeavored to keep this collective memory and history alive. Although Guzman now lives in France, the clearly tortured past of Chile, his native land, dominates as a main theme for most of his films.

Nostalgia for the Light might often be categorized as a documentary. But it is more of a cinematic essay. This film articulates and posits definite philosophical and moral points of view — it tries to connect the search of the heavens with the search for history. How can the Atacama Desert’s dry and vast emptiness support both the clear vision of the universe and still hide the recent past?

The young astronomer Gaspar Galaz, encapsulates this philosophical disconnect, when he says that “the present doesn't exist.” The reason is because light needs time to travel from its origin to the eye of the viewer. Whenever an astronomer looks at the sky through the telescope, he always sees the past, because of the time it took that image to get to the eyes. The contrast is glaring: while Galaz peers through his telescopes to study galaxies, the women return day after day, sometimes for years -- to comb 40,600 square miles of desert for a tiny bone fragment that might connect them to a lost loved one.

In Nostalgia for the Light, a woman beautifully articulates this piteous, reverent search when she says, “I wish telescopes didn't just look into the sky, but could also see through the earth so that we could find them.”

Ultimately, moral and ethical meaning in Nostalgia for the Light comes from the beauty of its images — the starkness of the desert, where the bleached-out bones of those dead but-not-forgotten lay in sharp disparity to the endless depths of the star-laden night sky. In this harsh contrast of perspectives, detail contains the most powerful meaning: the well-oiled gears of an old telescope which enables astronomers to see thousands of light years away with clarity that escapes women who sift through rock and dirt to recover a history — stolen from them by political brutality…

Milos Stehlik’s commentaries reflect his own views and not necessarily those of Facets Multi-Media, Worldview or 91.5 WBEZ. His reviews air on Fridays.

The trailer for Nostalgia for the Light, with English subtitles