Nostalgia for the Light
by Sam Flancher
Now playing at the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago, IL
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Everything we are experiencing in the world is the past. At least, that is one of the theses in Patricio Guzmán’s latest documentary, Nostalgia for the Light. Early on we are informed that, because of minute, millisecond delays in our perceptive abilities, the present is a fleeting idea - not something to be tangibly experienced.
With audiences questioning the reality of the world they’re living in (and maybe even more interestingly, the one that they’re experiencing onscreen) Guzmán launches into a well-balanced film about the noble quest of the astronomer, the emotional and political ramifications of dictatorial leadership, nostalgia, memory, and the importance of memory and the past.
The Atacama Desert (the driest place on the planet) is the subject of Guzmán’s philosophical musings. His subject begins with astronomy, transitions into a political examination of the need for catharsis in post-Pinochet Chile, and ends up blending the two in a grandiose amalgamation about memory and its vitality.
The film thrives during its personal examinations of political prisoners and victims of the atrocities committed by the Chilean military and government. We are introduced to an architect who can remember the exact dimensions of the political concentration camp that he lived in, a daughter whose parents were executed by the government, and a group of women tirelessly hunting for the remains of their loved ones. Their task seems nearly impossible, but their need for closure is both understandable and affecting. An astronomer considers and compares their respective tasks. Why is the scientific research and study of the past venerated while the quest of these women to preserve their personal memories of the people they love deemed tantamount to insanity? The past isn’t something to be ignored, but something to live with.
While there’s great value in attaching the deeply personal, specific troubles of the political victims with the all-encompassing questions of the astronomers, the film slightly derails when it drifts too far from the Chilean struggle. The comparison adds a degree of universality that may have already been achieved with the personal stories. This brings up the film’s greatest weakness - its need to over-explain what’s going on onscreen. Rather than letting the audience feel the emotional power of the images, Guzmán forces talking heads to explain exactly what we’ve already figured out on our own. In this case, it feels as if Guzmán is playing it on the safe side, not wanting any of his message (which is obviously near and dear to his heart) to fall by the wayside. A little more trust in himself as a director and the audience as receivers would’ve strengthened the film.
That being said, Nostalgia for the Light gives audiences much to reflect on - exactly what it sets out to do from the start.
Sam Flancher is a film student at Columbia College Chicago. He currently lives in Chicago and is a freelance writer and videographer.
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