Film Review: ‘The Pearl Button’

Patricio Guzman overreaches in trying to connect the genocide of Chile’s indigenous water nomads with Pinochet’s political murders.

Martin G. Calderon, Gabriela Paterito, Emma Malig, Gabriel Salazar, Claudio Mercado, Raul Zurita, Cristina Calderon, Adil Brkovic, Javier Rebolledo, Juan Molina, Raul Beas. (Spanish, Kawesqar dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4377864/reference

What “Nostalgia for the Light” did for the desert, “The Pearl Button” is meant to do for water, but the deft melding of past and present that characterized Patricio Guzman’s earlier film becomes muddied here by the Natural Science 101 voiceover and an unsatisfying bridge between two rather disparate subjects. On the one hand, there’s a fascinating discussion of the indigenous peoples who lived in the waterways of western Patagonia; on the other, the Pinochet dictatorship’s chilling practice of dumping political prisoners into the sea. Attractive images and involving subjects partly paper over gaps in connective tissue, but “Button” is unlikely to achieve a success equal to “Light.”

Considering that Chile boasts 2,670 miles of coastline, Guzman is right to question why a country with so much seafront has never capitalized on its maritime possibilities. Unsurprisingly, the answer lies in the nation’s colonial history: Chile did have five distinct ethnic groups whose life was intimately tied to the watery archipelagos of the south, but farmers and missionaries wiped them away. Now their languages, like Kawesqar and Yagan, are all but dead, and their culture a cherished memory among the few people who still recall 600-mile canoe trips between the islands.

Guzman interviews several of these elders, weaving in fascinating early 20th-century photographs by Martin Gusinde of the extinct Selk’nam people as well as ethnological films. The pic’s title comes from a short history lesson about Jemmy Button, a Yagan teen sold to a British naval captain in 1830 for a mother-of-pearl button (anthropologists may cringe at the line “He traveled from the Stone Age to the Industrial Age, and back”). Another button makes an appearance towards the docu’s end, but a sense of poetic closure feels forced.

Popular on Variety

Perhaps that’s because tying together the genocide of an entire race, whose way of life was sea-based, with the targeted murders of thousands of political dissidents simply doesn’t hold water. No one can (or should) fault Guzman for his vital insistence, throughout his long career, on ensuring that the crimes of the military dictatorship are never forgotten. Yet a re-creation of the horrific manner in which people, some still alive, were bagged, tied to pieces of railroad track, and dumped from helicopters into the sea belongs to another movie. A miniseries would perhaps be a better way to explore the complex relationship between Chile and its coastline, rather than a film that struggles to connect such unrelated subjects.

Guzman’s soporific voiceover, especially at the start, with too-basic information about how water arrived on earth, aims for a lyricism that feels forced. Does water, even in poetry, really retain a memory of the things and people it encounters? Surely, as John Keats so brilliantly expressed in his self-scribed epitaph “Here lies one whose name was writ in water,” aqueous substances obliterate traces left behind, and all that remains is but a chance survivor of nature’s inexorable eraser.

Visuals were shot on 2K digital, and while the lensing of Patagonia’s majestic, awe-inspiring glaciers is undeniably beautiful, the print viewed contains less of the staggering tonal ranges auds have come to expect from nature docus. Speculations about water in other solar systems, including CGI imaginings, are superfluous to the argument, and fantasizing about whether the indigenous peoples could have found safe haven in another galaxy is best left to the likes of H.G. Wells and Edgar Rice Burroughs.

Film Review: 'The Pearl Button'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 7, 2015. Running time: 82 MIN. (Original title: "El boton de nacar")

Production: (Documentary — France-Chile-Spain) An Atacama Prods. presentation of an Atacama Prods., Valdivia Film, Mediapro, France 3 Cinema production, with the participation of France Televisions, CNC, Cine plus, WDR, RTS Radio Television Suisse. (International sales: Pyramide Intl., Paris.) Produced by Renate Sachse. Executive producer, Adrien Oumhani. Coproducers, Bruno Bettati, Fernando Lataste, Jaume Roures Llop.

Crew: Directed, written by Patricio Guzman. Camera (color, 2K), Katell Djian; editor, Emmanuelle Joly; music, Miranda & Tobar, Hughes Marechal; art director, Pamela Chamorro; sound, Alvaro Silva Wuth, Jean-Jacques Quinet.

With: Martin G. Calderon, Gabriela Paterito, Emma Malig, Gabriel Salazar, Claudio Mercado, Raul Zurita, Cristina Calderon, Adil Brkovic, Javier Rebolledo, Juan Molina, Raul Beas. (Spanish, Kawesqar dialogue)

More Film

  • Kevin Hart'Jumanji: The Next Level' film

    Kevin Hart to Star in Action-Comedy from 'Broad City' Alums (EXCLUSIVE)

    Universal Pictures is developing an untitled action-comedy based on an original idea from “Broad City’s” Lucia Aniello and Paul W. Downs with Kevin Hart attached to star. Aniello and Downs will write the script as well as executive produce. Malcolm D. Lee is on board to direct the film with Will Packer and James Lopez [...]

  • Jeremy Saulnier John Boyega

    Netflix Sets Ensemble for Jeremy Saulnier's 'Rebel Ridge' Starring John Boyega (EXCLUSIVE)

    Don Johnson, James Badge Dale, Zsane Jhe, James Cromwell and “The Crown” breakout Erin Doherty are set to join John Boyega in Netflix’s “Rebel Ridge,” a thriller from “Green Room” writer-director Jeremy Saulnier, Variety has learned. Like the 2013 crime drama “Green Room,” Saulnier’s upcoming movie is said to be a high-velocity thriller that explores [...]

  • The Indoraptor prepares to strike in

    'Jurassic World 3' Director Announces New Title

    Director Colin Trevorrow announced via Twitter on Tuesday that “Jurassic World 3” has started principal production, and he also slyly revealed that the sixth film in the “Jurassic” franchise has a new title: “Jurassic World: Dominion.” The new title — which appears on the slate for the film in Trevorrow’s tweet — evokes the biblical [...]

  • Chuat Reymond

    Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond on Berlin’s ‘My Little Sister’

    Stéphanie Chuat and Véronique Reymond’s “My Little Sister” (“Schwesterlein”) premiered at the Berlin Film Festival on Tuesday to strong critical and audience receptions, with particular praise heaped on lead actors Nina Hoss and Lars Eidinger. In his Variety review, Guy Lodge praised: “This is bright, unaffected naturalism with a fluidly roving camera, but also a [...]

  • Miriam Haley and Tarale Wulff

    Women Who Testified in Harvey Weinstein Trial Slam His Lawyers for 'Victim Blaming' 

    Six women testified during the Harvey Weinstein rape trial, and now that the former movie mogul was found guilty of two felony charges, those women are speaking out with newfound freedom. Miriam Haley, who was assaulted by Weinstein in 2006, resulting in him being convicted of a criminal sex act (which carries a maximum sentence [...]

  • E. L. James

    Movie Rights to 'Fifty Shades of Grey' Author's 'The Mister' Land at Universal (EXCLUSIVE)

    Following the massive success of the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy, Universal and author E. L. James are reteaming on the scribe’s next novel as the studio has optioned the rights to “The Mister,” James’ 2019 best-selling romance. Rights for the book, which recently hit the market, sparked a heated bidding war. James, who produced [...]

  • Bad Tales

    'Bad Tales': Film Review

    At a surprise party for his daughter, a randy Italian homeowner studies a neighbor’s wife through the sliding glass door and describes all the ways he’d like to violate her. In the bathroom, his 14-year-old son sits with his best friend, studying the hardcore porn sites listed in the browsing history of Dad’s cellphone. A [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content