Chilean documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman (“The Battle for Chile”) shows he’s still as strong a nonfiction alchemist as ever in his latest concoction, the often breathtaking “Nostalgia for the Light.” Astronomy and pre-Columbian history are the unlikely angles the vet helmer uses to explore new nooks and crannies of the one recurring theme in his oeuvre: Chile’s largely repressed past under the Pinochet regime. Result is strong, especially for the first hour. Further fest play and niche distribution in Spanish-lingo territories is assured but lack of a ready marketing hook won’t set B.O. charts alight elsewhere.
“Science fell in love with Chile’s sky,” explains the helmer early on in v.o., referring to the astronomical observatories that dot the country’s Atacama desert. First of pic’s talking heads is young astronomer Gaspar Galaz, who posits that “the present doesn’t exist” because light always needs time to travel from its source to the viewer. When astronomers look at the heavens, they peer directly into the past, and Galaz extrapolates this idea to everything people see. Explained without complicated scientific mumbo jumbo, this provocative notion not only serves as the basis of this pic but also supplies a retrofit way of considering the rest of Guzman’s filmography.
In the desert surrounding the observatories’ glimmering domes, archaeologists study pre-Columbian engravings and mummies that offer another type of direct access to the distant past. Guzman suggests it’s a paradox that ancient history, whether on earth or in the universe, is so readily accessible in Chile while the country’s recent past remains largely hidden (though the director’s work goes a long way in disproving that notion, at least abroad).
Rummaging in the sands alongside the archaeologists are women like Vicky Saavedra, looking for the dumped remains of people that disappeared under Pinochet. The careful enumeration of the few parts Vicky found of her brother — several teeth, some bits of his head, a foot with his shoe still on it — is emotionally charged material that Guzman handles with typical restraint.
Part of the beauty of “Nostalgia” is that the many metaphors and surprising parallels between the universe, archaeology and Chile’s recent past rise organically from the material. Cumulative effect of pic’s intricate editing is key and also places the Pinochet era in much larger contexts. The idea that the universal truths can be found by focusing on local details is again proven here.
Though the interviewees are filmed without much imagination, the film still contains an indecent number of jaw-dropping visuals, including time-lapse views of the nighttime desert sky and computer-enhanced shots of dust particles that sparkle like stars. Several eerily beautiful desert vistas, including a windswept cemetery and a saltpeter town-turned-Pinochet concentration camp, stand as silent monuments of a dark past. Strong sound work heightens the intensity of these shots, while the new-agey score fills in adequately elsewhere.
Pic loses steam in the final half-hour as Guzman moves from the Atacama desert to Santiago, which undermines one of the main elements that glued the film’s disparate elements together: unity of place.
Poetic title was inspired by a French tome on astrophysics.