We Are Stardust
Michael Koresky on Nostalgia for the Light

Patricio Guzmán’s epochal multipart 1978 documentary The Battle of Chile concludes with a slow zoom out on a barren desert plain. The image is despairing but not entirely bereft: the U.S.-backed coup d’etat against Chile’s democratically elected Marxist president Salvador Allende has already taken place, and General Augusto Pinochet, the ultimately genocidal dictator, has assumed the throne, but the miners and other various workers interviewed and followed by Guzmán in this third part of the film remain hopeful of the future. They will reassemble, they vow, and their somewhat defeated promises for the regrowth of the Chilean Communist Party echo over images of the vast Chilean expanse of sand and rock, emptied of signs of life.

This somber ending is fitting not only for the epic political cri de coeur itself but also as a starting point of sorts for the rest of Guzmán’s career: his engagement, likewise, begins here. From In the Name of God (1987) and Chile, Obstinate Memory (1997), through The Pinochet Case (2001), Guzmán has become the cinematic memory of Chile, exorcizing his nation’s demons in a longterm project to ensure that the world never forgets the horrific realities of the regime. With his newest documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán journeys back to the desert and in so doing proves that he remains one of the most vital, engaged, searching voices in cinema. Like all of his films, it’s a work of major excavation, only in some ways more literal: setting the groundwork for the film’s many narrative and philosophical threads is its portrait of the Atacama desert, its past and present, its sky and earth, its technological and historical resonances.

In the arid Atacama, one can find the biggest telescopes in the world, which as Guzmán shows, contrast boldly with the terrain, smooth, perfectly white domes framed against the unforgiving natural, rocky landscape. This is where Chile’s astronomers have come for years to gaze at the cosmos, hoping to unlock the mysteries of the universe. Yet another mystery lives here: this is also where it is believed that the bodies of many executed political prisoners were buried (sixty percent of the assassinations committed during the dictatorship are unsolved to this day), and where a handful of tireless women—including Victoria and Valeta, two of the film’s subjects—still search for their remains, in a never-ending quest that's spanned almost three decades.

Thus Nostalgia for the Light is concerned with bodies both celestial and physical; it’s a film whose subjects couldn't be grander, yet which couldn’t feel more personal. A metaphysical, ethnographic, and, of course, political cine-essay, Guzmán’s film is a work of immense power—of profound ugliness and beauty, of the unthinkable occurring somewhere deep within a universe unknowable. It feels different from several of Guzmán’s other films in the way that it locates something nearly mystical surrounding the harsh truths of recent Chilean history. It’s a film that Guzmán spent many years preparing and then making—a dream project, then, but also in that it takes the form of a dream, one filled with scattered memories, musings, and philosophies. But finally, as always, we wake up to hard, cold facts. It’s a circular film, both in the way it constantly loops back on its own ideas, deepening them with each new added ring, and also in its visuals: it begins with images of the enormous spinning wheels of the German Hayde telescope located in an observatory in Santiago. It is a film of close inspection, but also of introspection.

At times early on, Nostalgia for the Light seems a fairly straightforward memoir, narrated commandingly by the director himself, who, after waxing mysteriously about space and time, takes us back to the pre-revolution Chile of his childhood, when Patricio was simply a kid who loved science-fiction stories and astronomy, and when his world was “a haven of peace, isolated from the rest of the world.” But instead of relying on old photographs or home movie footage to take us back, Guzmán lays his voiceover on a series of elegant, Malickian images, close-ups of napkins and tablecloths, stained glass windows and dishes, in rooms drained of people yet filled with floating stardust, glistening like jewels. This is the unattainable past, a lost paradise, a place Guzmán has rarely attempted to show before. As the title implies, this film looks backwards as much as it points ahead, watches the skies as much as it burrows through the ground—the calcium in the stars is the same as that found in our bones.

Despite the moral devastation wreaked by Pinochet’s ascension, Guzmán tells us, Chilean astronomers kept working in their outposts, searching for life’s origins. Not far into the film, the director introduces the first of many supporting characters, a young astronomer named Gaspar, born after the coup. (There is a talking-heads doc aspect to the film, but they’re such disparate people and so ingeniously woven into the whole that the guests seem more like voices from the ether than authorities trotted out to provide theses or evidence.) Gaspar, who under Pinochet’s regime studied diffuse galaxies (which often appear as though gas and dust), reminds us, powerfully, that “science is never resolved.” One might say the same of history, of course, and also of Guzmán’s career-long endeavor to force his country to confront its past through the cinema. Gaspar further provides Nostalgia for the Light with a central theme, that of the past intruding upon an impossible present: if physics tells us that there is no now, and that, thus, we don’t actually see things the instant we look at them, then how can a nation, or a person, be freed from the shackles of history?

Guzmán proceeds to dig further back into that history, and he has fertile ground in which to do it. Chile’s still thriving mining industry (very much in the news, as recent happier events proved) was in the nineteenth-century an excuse to use the nation’s Indian population as slaves. The countless bodies of men, women, and children, buried somewhere in the desert, and the abandoned, rusted machinery of the mines in Atacama, mark the land as a graveyard of sorts. The tortured history of this place extended to the 1970s at least, when Pinochet established a concentration camp for dissidents at the Atacama nitrate town of Chacabuco. Here, despite the starvation and desperation, some prisoners continued to stargaze, fashioning makeshift telescopes in the hopes of witnessing something sublime—anything to transcend the suffocating space of their cells, the measurements of which are recounted by Miguel, who Guzmán calls the “Architect of Memory” for his lasting commitment to never forgetting the conditions under which he, and other prisoners, lived, through drawings and memorization. This man is clearly some form of hero to Guzmán, who was recently quoted as saying, “The absence of memory produces a global suffering.”

One subject leads to another, in a teeming free associative structure that nevertheless always philosophically and historically coheres; Guzmán also often uses repetition of images (of moon craters, of floating stardust, of the Solar System, of Atacama, of telescopes) to create a forceful sense of eternal return. The director’s accumulation of images and thoughts is powerful; history repeats itself (for instance, the fact that the names of political prisoners were etched on the concentration camp walls may recall an earlier rumination on the mysterious ancient carvings high in the desert rocks, keys to unlocking the secrets of lost civilizations). With its parallels and recollections, Nostalgia becomes an increasingly dialectical work. Late in the film, when Guzmán introduces us to Chilean exile Victor’s mother, a masseuse, he overlays shots of her putting healing hands on a patient with voiceover explaining the 30,000 recorded instances of torture during the regime. The disjunction between sound and image here creates a poignant moment—there is occasional solace in physical connection, but it perhaps requires a spiritual disassociation between body and spirit.

This expedition to outer space and inner Chile may take as its subject nothing less than the universe, but it’s really about the smallest creatures swarming within its incomprehensible boundaries. The most essential here might finally be the women of Calama, Victoria and Valeta, tireless in their quest to find the remains of their lost loved ones, resolute in never giving up the ghost. As one of them says, finding him is all that would give her a sense of finality before death. As with every other being on this planet, the present moment, if it exists at all, is fragile—a mass of contradictions, of particles bouncing off of each other with disregard. The choking knot of the past is what gives Guzmán, and all of us, the irreparable curse of nostalgia.