Water Bearing
By Jeff Reichert

The Pearl Button
Dir. Patricio Guzmán, Chile, Kino Lorber

The soft, warm voice of Patricio Guzmán narrates many of his films, even if it’s taken on different personalities through the years. It’s a matter-of-fact guide through the furious cinema vérité footage of his seventies landmark The Battle of Chile. It’s rueful and regret-filled in later works Chile, Obstinate Memory and Salvador Allende, two films that exist under the heavy shadow of the filmmaker’s primal scene: the coup d’etat in which Augusto Pinochet, backed by the United States, overthrew democratically elected leftist president Allende (which was, of course, the subject of The Battle of Chile). In Nostalgia for the Light, his upwards/downwards-looking essay about the high-tech astronomical equipment in the Atacama Desert constructed atop the buried bones of those disappeared during Pinochet’s purges, that voice is curious and meditative. The changes in tone over time match the evolution of the man himself: a young radical begat an exile who, after Pinochet’s arrest, returned to his home and begat the erudite, omnivorous nonfiction artisan we justly celebrate today.

The Pearl Button functions in a similar mode to Nostalgia for the Light—the filmmaker deploys a series of elements that are unconnected on the surface, using his voiceover musings and taking liberal advantage of the power of metaphor to tie all of his varying strands together. Where in that prior film, Guzmán was inspired by the stars, here it’s water. The Pearl Button is a soaked film—at every turn, Guzmán takes us back to the sea via beautiful lingering shots of waves and coasts that recall every nature show you’ve ever seen, except here the words that accompany the crash of the waves tell of historical memory. As with Nostalgia, Guzmán is above all interested in life, where it comes from, how it continues, what nourishes it. Without water, human life on Earth would be impossible. This is not original to note, but it functions well as a jumping off point for an examination that travels to the stars and back.

Guzmán opens his film obliquely: close-ups of a pink quartz, in which a small droplet of water is trapped in an air pocket. We see the liquid move as a hand turns the quartz in space and marvel at its durability. How long has it been in there? It’s anyone’s guess, but likely longer than you or anyone you’ve ever met has been alive. Water and the seas it populates, then, are eternal, epic, indestructible. Chile, a long, thin nation, is a country of vast coastlines, and, if one factors in the archipelagos of Patagonia at its Southern tip, so thick with little islands that on a map the area begins to look like a few days’ worth of chin stubble, has even more possibility for interaction with the sea. Yet—and this puzzles Guzmán greatly—Chile has never been a seafaring, maritime power, preferring instead to look and build inward, away from the sea.

The main point of connection between the people of Chile and the oceans has traditionally been found in its indigenous inhabitants. Native peoples currently account for a bit less than 5% of Chile’s population of 18 million, and Guzmán heads south to interview members of tribes on the verge of extinction. The Battle of Chile’s in-the-moment urgency didn’t leave room for probing interviews, but his later films have revealed Guzmán as one of documentary’s great inquisitors. Here he queries his subjects about their relationships with the sea, about canoe rides, about their language and history. There’s a dual purpose here: first, as a continuation of his project of capturing his nation’s history in words and images; second, as a pivot point to work Allende and Pinochet back into the mix. As is revealed in the narration, once elected Allende quickly moved to redistribute tribal lands back to their original owners, while Pinochet just as quickly worked to viciously purge these tribal people.

Has there been another filmmaker to so thoroughly and consistently (perhaps even obsessively) plumb the reverberating implications of a single moment in his country’s national history? Perhaps not, and the lasting value of Guzmán’s overall project is inestimable. Yet when The Pearl Button swings back to that moment, to Pinochet and Allende, the center cannot hold, or perhaps it holds a little less firmly. He provides us a chillingly recreated sequence that enlightens viewers to yet another way in which Pinochet’s regime exercised cruelties—tying bodies to metal rails and dropping them into the water from helicopter. This leads to a button being unearthed by a diver under rail ties (one of two such buttons important to the film and its title—Guzmán is ever interested in material traces), and though we can square these inclusions with the overall concept, they feel somewhat abrupt in a film that begins as even more reflective and landscape-obsessed than the Atacama-set Nostalgia. Of course, given that, at the outset of his earlier Salvador Allende, the filmmaker noted, “Salvador Allende marked my life. I would not be what I am if he had not incarnated the just Utopia of a just and free world, which ran through my country during that time,” we probably shouldn’t expect to make it through one of his movies without some digression to the coup.

The Pearl Button is less elegantly arguedthan Nostalgia; the latter, though filled with digressions aplenty, rested on the foundations of a solid mirroring metaphor. The Pearl Button is rangier and seems to push out in many directions all at once—buttons, Pinochet, Allende, native Chileans, the seas, water, outer space, life. An intellect like Guzmán’s is too disciplined to ever go fully adrift, but his latest is an unruly thing. It’s one of those works that in its overflowing, abundant generosity, its overwhelming intelligence and desire to share, to tell, to make connections, ends up trying to do a little too much. A new film from Guzmán is always a gift, so this is barely a complaint. At eighty-two minutes it does many things well, not least providing yet another window into the unexpected intersections at play in the mind of one our greatest living filmmakers.