Rounding out his sublimely meditative, deeply personal documentary-essay trilogy on time, memory and the relationship of Chile’s breathtaking landscapes to its troubled human history, Patricio Guzmán delivers “The Cordillera of Dreams,” a haunting and allusive exploration of the cultural impact of the country’s most spectacular geological feature: its snowcapped mountain spine. Coming after the exploration of the Atacama Desert and the night sky that was “Nostalgia for the Light” and the investigation of the impact of water along the vast Chilean coastline in “The Pearl Button,” the rockier, more rigid “Cordillera” feels perhaps the least expansive and surprising of the three. But if that makes it more a grace-note coda than an equally powerful stand-alone entry, that still only puts it a few clicks south of essential.
Taken as a completed project, Guzmán’s late-career trinity is a stunning achievement in the cinema of the hidden pattern and the startling, unexpected connection. Here, there may be nothing to quite compare to the breathtaking intellectual sweep that took “The Pearl Button” from a drop of water trapped in a meteorite to the rain that fell on Guzmán’s childhood home to the seas that brought colonists and slavers from distant lands and the tides that washed evidence of political mass crime forever away, but “Cordillera” nonetheless completes the elemental theme — sky, water, earth — and grounds Guzmán’s far-reaching poetry in strata of rock, magma and ice.
The Chilean Andes run almost the whole length of the country, and given how narrow Chile is, the peaks are visible from almost every region, even those on the coast. And so they provided an inescapable, if little considered, backdrop to Guzmán’s Santiago childhood, as he tells us in his familiar, melodic voiceover — itself a kind of Pavlovian response mechanism for those familiar with his work. But the mountains are contradictory: As a friendly national icon, they grace logos for matchbooks and canned food brands, yet in reality they’re forbiddingly indifferent to the lives and deaths that happen under their gaze.
They are also literally ambivalent: Argentina claims a large portion of their Eastern face, and only the southern section of the massive Cordillera (deriving from the Spanish for “little rope”) that stretches all the way up to the Rockies is in Chilean territory. Yet their defining influence on the psyche of the idiosyncratic, ancient nation cannot be overstated.
Several of the interviewees, who include artists, a vulcanologist, a writer and a cameraman who has dedicated his life to recording images of Chilean protest, mention how the mountain range’s impassable peaks have both a protective and an isolationist effect. Like a naturally occurring, staggeringly huge wall, they have deterred invasion and aggression from Chile’s neighbors for centuries. But they have also contributed to periods of stagnation and an inwardness that Guzmán shrewdly and unsentimentally addresses.
Over images both prosaic and borderline phantasmagorical (Samuel Lahu’s clean-lined cinematography is studded with floating panoramas of dramatic glaciers and intricate snowbound passes), Guzmán once again weaves in his personal recollections with the story of his nation’s tangled, amnesiac past. This time, however, the collision of the Proustian and the political has an air of finality, with the now 77-year-old director noting with optimism and melancholy the changes in the national temperature even since his trilogy began in 2010. The most frequent recurring character is Pablo Salas, a director and cameraman who has amassed an enormous archive of footage documenting decades of street protests and activist events — a project Guzmán admires with an edging of regret, as he has not lived in Chile since his arrest in 1973 during the early stages of Pinochet’s murderous coup. Yet, as Guzmán reflects on a new wave of Chilean youth coming of age with an unabashed curiosity about their history that previous generations have painfully suppressed, he hints that the time may have come for both his and Salas’ watch to end. Chile is starting to remember.
But then, this trilogy is much more than an act of bearing witness. It is living memoir and breathing history and sometimes a dizzyingly high-wire act of philosophical inquiry that, at its close, seems to deposit Guzmán back where it all began, in a Santiago that is unrecognizable from the one he left, even if fringed by the same immutable mountains. How appropriate and how bittersweet that after the suffusingly sad “Nostalgia for the Light” imagined the stars in the Atacaman sky to contain the banished atoms of Chile’s dispossessed and disappeared, and “The Pearl Button” took its title from the story of one of its early native exiles, the tentatively hopeful “The Cordillera of Dreams” should feel like a homecoming.