Nostalgia for the Light / Nostalgia de la Luz

Fri, Jul 13, 2012, 01:00

Directed by Patricio Guzmán Club, IFI, Dublin, 90 min

YOU CAN’T HELP but admire Patricio Guzmán’s audacity in seeking to bolt together two apparently incompatible themes in this striking, if sometimes rather frustrating, cinematic essay on the search for elusive answers to near impossible questions.

Nostalgia for the Light — get that aggressively important title — is set in the Atacama Desert in an inhospitable, elevated section of northern Chilé. The area’s dryness makes it ideally suited to stargazing. The radio telescopes situated in the locale, capable of gazing terrifyingly deeply into the universe, enable scientists to make hitherto unavailable speculations about the very origin of the cosmos. Patient cinemagoers get to marvel at a light show that could hardly be bettered by Hollywood’s finest special effects.

The desert has, however, also played host to a concentration camp, where political enemies of the Pinochet regime were detained before becoming unwilling members of (that queasily polite euphemism) “the disappeared”. Family members still trudge around the site searching desperately for remnants and tiny fragments of bone from the murdered prisoners.

Guzmán, director of an acclaimed documentary on Salvador Allende, has spent much of his professional career studying that grim period and, once again, he works hard at summoning up the waste and cruelty wrought by Pinochet’s thugogracy.

The director’s thesis seems to be that the search for traces of lost companions and the investigation into the fate of long extinct stars (the light from those bodies set out on their journeys aeons ago) stem from similar motivations and involve comparable degrees of desperate obsession.

Guzmán almost pulls it off. We meet astronomers who argue that there really is no such thing as “the present”. We talk to flattened relatives who hang desperately onto relics that may have belonged to (or actually be part of) people they still love.

It’s very sad, very seductive and often very beautiful. But at times the picture overreaches itself in its ambition to address the hugest of life’s quandaries. The repeated use of double exposure to imprint stars where there were none before does little to convince us that the film’s competing themes belong together.

Impressive, nonetheless.