The Heavens and the Earth, by David Bax
Sometimes it seems like conventional wisdom not to mix the political and the personal. It sounds like good advice on paper but it’s not really possible because the political is personal. If a government is meant to represent those it governs, then its actions and the way its people feel about them are intensely personal to each and every individual. Noted Chilean political filmmaker Patricio Guzman strikes the balance perfectly in his newest film, the informative, angry, sad, humanistic, spiritual and awesome Nostalgia for the Light.
Guzman was born in 1941 so he would have been already in his 30’s by the time a coup, backed by the U.S. military, overthrew democratically elected President Salvador Allende and installed General Augusto Pinochet in his place. Pinochet would go on to become a notorious and violent dictator, suspected of killing and/or disappearing somewhere between 1,500 and 3,500 political dissidents during his reign. More than 20 years after his reign ended and less than five years after his death, most of the remains of this unknown number of victims remain unfound, or found only in fragments. These bodies are still out there, Guzman suggests, they continue to haunt the nation of Chile, despite its current government’s attempts to move on from the past with as little comment as possible.
It’s this issue of “the past” that most concerns Guzman in Nostalgia for the Light. Despite the admittedly heavy-handed introduction to this review, the film is a work of beauty and hope that begins by looking not into the secrets buried in Chile’s soil but to the heavens above it. The Atacama Desert, one of the few places on the planet that receives virtually no rainfall whatsoever, and therefore has no cloud cover, is an ideal place for astronomical observatories. There are two major ones here and scientists from all over the world come to look into the sky, at the universe’s past. Of course, everything that the human eye can observe in the cosmos is merely a remnant of things that have come and gone, a very long time ago. Guzman is fascinated by this and treats it not as trivial knowledge but as the basis for a potent analogy.
The Atacama Desert has an additional claim to fame, apart from being the clearest window from earth to space. This arid land is, or once was, the dumping ground for those Pinochet had killed. Secret mass graves pockmarked the ground here. Most of them were dug up and moved (no one knows where) but there are pieces left behind; mostly skulls and feet that fell from the ends of the bulldozer’s shovel. Just as observers come to Chile to look up from the desert, there are a small team of women, banded together by heartbreaking desperation, who come to look down into it. These women, mostly relatives of those who were disappeared, come to Atacama with nothing but small shovels and their aging bodies to dig at random, hoping to gain closure by finding the ones they lost.
Guzman is not just making a point here; he’s doing so with unparalleled beauty and artistry. Right from the opening shots of a telescope moving into position, he stuns at every turn with compositions that art striking and designed to remind the audience that they, as humans, are dwarfed by all that surrounds them. This is a film that cries out to be seen on as large a screen as possible and, with sound design that is naturalistic yet foreboding, demands that the speakers be turned way up. There is a repeated optical effect that, though quite simple and probably executable on a home computer, literally dazzles in the theater. Nostalgia for the Light is, in the truest sense, a transformative work of art.
As Guzman’s past films have shown (The Pinochet Case, Salvador Allende), he is very much like the women combing the desert for bones. He seeks closure. And he believes fiercely that the rest of his country does too. Chile’s leaders would seemingly love nothing more than to leave the past behind, to be reinvented as a nation without the scars of its past. But just like the light from long-dead stars, the past will catch up to us all and we should not be afraid of it.