Reading the synopsis of Nostalgia for the Light, I immediately began to wonder if the film wasn’t the littlest bit splintered in its focus. This appeared to be a film about two separate topics altogether, yet here they were in a single film a scant hour and a half long. I did a little digging into the director, Patricio Guzman, and apparently he has delved quite frequently into his home country of Chile and the fallout of the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in the documentaries he’s made in the past, and this one was to be no different… Well, okay, maybe it was a little different. To imagine a documentary on the impact of a dictatorial regime is to stray quite far from what Nostalgia of the Light seems to strive toward. This is a documentary that aims to cover one of the most ubiquitous and lasting topics known to humans; the concept of memory, and humanity’s ultimate place in the cyclical existence and conservation of matter and energy that is the universe.
I’ll be a little understandably simple in my plot synopsis, since (as I inferred in the opener) there are really a few topics covered in this film, though Guzman does do an admirable job in blending them together. The Atacama Desert in Chile is one of the most arid and lifeless regions on Earth; so much so that astronomers have flocked to the area to construct telescopes and observatories to get crystal-clear images of the cosmos. While they search the heavens, in a way the film argues is a method of uncovering the past, so too do geologists dig in the desert’s ground, to ‘uncover the past’ of life on our own planet. Simultaneously, Guzman also explores a small contingent of women, who do their own digging and searching to try and find the remains of family and friends systematically disappeared by the dictatorship, which they’ve done for many years now. So, how exactly does this film take these three arguably isolated topics and produce a single cohesive documentary from them? Very easily, through the most basic of cinematic juxtaposition techniques; finding the common ground between all of them. Here, the common ground is expressed by Guzman as the ultimate search for what it is we all seek; knowledge, in its various forms. Astronomers search the skies through the images they take, images that are technically from thousands to millions of light years away, and thus by definition from the past, while here on Earth, the women are looking for closure in their own quests. It is this universal constant, the search for knowledge, that unites every human being on Earth, even if our own individual searches may not be relatable at surface-level; this is Guzman’s argument. What ultimately makes Nostalgia for the Light worth the experience and time is how Guzman goes about expressing it. It might be improper to say that Nostalgia for the Light is one of the most poetic films I have ever seen, but I think I’m going to go ahead and say it anyway. There’s an almost listless quality to the filmmaking and the pacing that, coupled with Guzman’s own sleepy and demure voiceover narration, makes for an extremely ethereal and dreamlike watching experience. Others have gone on to say that the film is visually one of the most breathtaking documentaries they’ve seen, but as for me, I attribute this solely to the space photography Guzman incorporates into the film, which didn’t really seem like it should be attributed to Guzman himself.
While I was watching this, the question of whether or not the film was ultimately worth whatever it was building towards kept popping up in my head. When the film was nearing its final minutes, I finally came to a realization: This film isn’t a film that was made for an audience, or with a goal in mind to be achieved through either critical reception or consumer response. Simply put, this film exists for the sake of Patricio Guzman; he needed, personally, to make this film. Maybe he was merely interested in the stars, as his voiceover conveys, as well as the women who search the desert for the bodies of their loved ones, and managed to find a way to unite the two in his head. Maybe he felt he needed to capture these images on film, for the sake of some unknown purpose or committal of his ideas to history. Or maybe he just needed to get whatever this film is to him off his own chest. Whatever the reason, it makes for a very interesting cinematic treatise, but not all that entertaining a documentary, unless you do in fact want to experience a cinematic treatise. I seemed to be in just the right mood for this kind of film tonight, but I fully acknowledge that, on a different day with a different mindset, it might’ve ended up quite differently.
Arbitrary Rating: 8/10