As a child in Chile, Patricio Guzman stared at the stars and reveled in the untroubled quiet of a peaceful country, childhood and world.
Chile, as he explains in the introduction to his intricate, thought provoking and haunting documentary film, Nostalgia for the Light, was disconnected from the rest of the world.
The presidents walked the streets unprotected.
But the country began to become integrated with the world as the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile stretch of land that is commonly considered to be the driest place in the world, became the site of some of the largest, most sophisticated telescopes on the planet.
The only brown patch of earth that is visible from the moon, Atacama is sparsely populated. But you can often see women walking and digging up the terrain in a ceaseless, yet often unrewarded, search for the remains of their loved ones.
They are the mothers and wives of the country’s disappeared.
Chile’s Edenic period was disrupted first by the revolutionary ferment of Salvador Allende, and then, far more brutally, on Sept. 11, 1973. That was the day that Gen. Augusto Pinochet overthrew the Allende government and ushered in a 17-year reign of terror, death and destruction.
The barbarity of Pinochet’s regime appeared to know no limits.
Not only did the dictatorship “disappear” thousands of people, taking them in the middle of the night, holding them in concentration camps, then torturing and raping them before killing them.
They also deliberately buried the bones in different locations than they had killed their victims so that the loved ones would not find them.
In many cases they dumped them in the sea.
In the film, Guzman brings together the common threads between his childhood memories, the country’s premier location for astronomers, the quest of archaeologists to understand the nation’s pre-Colombian past, and the unhealed wounds so many Chileans suffered during the Pinochet era.
The work starts slowly, as a massive telescope being unfurled iis the only character in the film for close to the first five minutes.
The pace continues in a similar vein throughout the work.
The first third or so of the work is dedicated to astronomers and archaeologists, both of whom make the point that we are always living in, and they are always studying, the past.
One astronomer points out that even the perception of the present is in the very recent past because of the minute delay in thoughts moving to being consciously understood.
Guzman moves from this metaphysical premise to pointing out the irony in Chile being such an ideal place to study the past for these two disciplines because it has yet to fully confront its own most recent history. (He also makes the point in the film that atrocities against indigenous people occurred in the 19th century as well.)
More characters enter Nostalgia at this point, and the film, like a boa constrictor, starts to take deeper hold of the viewer’s attention and emotions.
Guzman introduces us to an imprisoned architect who memorized every detail of the dimensions of the concentration camp in which he was imprisoned once he was in exile in Denmark. Guzman notes that in a way the man, who is driven to remember, and his wife, who is losing her memory as she falls into the grip of Alzheimer’s, are a metaphor.
We meet another former concentration camp survivor who was part of a group of about two dozen prisoners who did their own stargazing while incarcerated. Led by a doctor who knew a lot about astronomy, the group was eventually stopped by the authorities who feared they would seek to escape.
The gentleman explains that he did not escape, but did feel at those moments very free.
Guzman also introduces us to the women and their ceaseless searches, explaining that cities all over the nation have people conducting similar searches.
Sometimes, having “success” is not enough.
In one of the movie’s most moving scenes, a woman explains that receiving just a part of her child’s body does not quiet the ache inside of her.
He was whole when they took him, she says, tears coming to her eyes as she sits in the desert where she has spent countless hours. I don’t want just a piece of him.
Nostalgia has moments of light, too.
One of these comes in the form of an astronomer who was raised by her grandparents after her parents were detained and killed.
She explains that her grandparents, who sit wordlessly on a couch, were pressured relentlessly by the government to reveal their children’s location lest their granddaughter be killed.
Eventually, they relented.
Despite living with this unthinkable burden, they managed to raise her in a joyful environment. Though she thinks of herself as having a manufacturing defect, she sees that the son she is raising does not, nor does her husband. This knowledge is a source of solace.
But so too is her study of astronomy and the way she has used her understanding of the natural world to formulate an attitude toward her parents’ death as part of the natural course of events.
Seeing this way, she says, allows her to diminish some of the pain she still feels over their death and absence from her life.
In the end, Guzman returns to the purity of his childhood-a period that he represents through the marbles he carried around as a boy-and the lights and stars twinkling over Santiago, the nation’s capital.
As the man-made lights start to go out and just the sounds remain, continuing as the credits roll, we are left with a deeper sense of the thread of seeking to answer questions from the past that connect so many in this injured, blood-soaked land.
Guzman is a Chilean who is seeking both to share and better understand his own experience as well as to help his countrymen confront what they together have not had the courage to completely face.
Yet, in this very effort, we are also left with the unsettling realization that, as Martha Minow wrote in the introduction to her work Between Vengeance and Forgiveness, there can be no final closure.
But we must do something.
Guzman has given us that in his film.