Judge William Lee has nostalgia for Crystal Pepsi.
Our humid planet has only one small brown patch that has absolutely no humidity. The vast Atacama Desert. There is nothing. No insects, no animals, no birds. And yet, it is full of history.
Nostalgia for the Light is a poetic documentary blending science, history, and personal reflection. The focus is on the Atacama Desert, a South American plateau west of the Andes Mountains and the driest place on the planet. Here, where the sky is so translucent, astronomers examine the most distant and oldest galaxies. When a Chilean scientist talks about how their research may reveal the secrets of the galaxy's past, director Patricio Guzman (The Battle for Chile) remarks that the Chilean populace hasn't yet come to terms with their recent past—specifically, the September, 1973 military coup. "This is the paradox which concerns you most," the scientist answers, "it's worthy of your concern."
The arid conditions of the desert have preserved human remains from the Pre-Columbian era leaving a treasure trove for archaeologists. Guzman observes that both astronomers and archaeologists examine the past to understand our present condition. Yet, that same effort is not directed toward his country's recent history. After the end of Augusto Pinochet's military dictatorship, the Chilean government's attitude has been to "turn the page" on history leaving unaccounted untold numbers of injustices from the era. The Atacama Desert was also used as mass graves for dissidents made to disappear by the military. At the heart of Guzman's film is a sense of suppressed rage that casts a cold shadow over everything. Still, the optimism and wonder of scientific discovery, complemented by mesmerizing photographs taken by the Hubble Space Telescope, provide points of inspiration.
Guzman talks to people from all walks of life that lived through the Pinochet years under persecution. One is a political prisoner who was held in a concentration camp in the desert. He memorized the layout of the camp to later give testimony and render detailed drawings of what happened there. Another is an astronomer whose grandparents were forced to give up the whereabouts of her parents to the military. The director devotes some attention to a group of women who continue to scour the desert year after year in search of the remains of their loved ones. Chillingly, discovery of body parts in the desert seems to be not very difficult.
Observing the business of the research facilities is interesting too. The occasional sound of motors from the observatories is often the only thing to break the eerie silence of the desert. Time-lapse photography of the night sky is almost overwhelmingly gorgeous as a dense sea of stars move over the horizon.
The DVD's technical presentation serves the material well. The picture is clean and detail is sharply rendered. Stationary images ranging from close ups of the desert floor to wide landscape shots are breathtaking in their beauty and stillness. Whenever the camera moves, the image can't help blurring. There were times that gave me want for a higher resolution look at the scenery but this SD presentation is quite good nonetheless. Interviews are filmed simply and exhibit the crispness of originating on video. Audio is an adequate stereo mix (despite the listing of 5.1 on the packaging) that delivers the narration and interviews clearly. The film is very quiet so there's not a great deal to show off in the sound department.
For extras, the disc includes five short films by Guzman and their combined running time equals another feature documentary. The individual films are: Chile, A Galaxy of Problems (32 minutes), Oscar Saa, Technician of the Stars (10 minutes), Jose Maza, Sky Traveler (13 minutes), Maria Teresa and the Brown Dwarf (12 minutes) and Astronomers from my Neighborhood (14 minutes) . Each film interviews a person on the subject of astronomy or Chile's history.
Nostalgia for the Light is at times somber and other times hopeful. Guzman is examining two things close to him: his remembrance of innocence and wonder while gazing at the night sky in his childhood and the unresolved pain of his country's political history. He makes a plea that history not be forgotten and this documentary functions at the very least to record the memories of some of those who survived turbulent days. The film is sometimes hypnotic in its depiction of the stark beauty of the desert. However, the long silences and overall quiet nature of the film can make it a struggle to maintain attention if you're not in the right mood. I admit to nodding off a couple of times on my first viewing but returning to it later I found the film's content worth the time and effort. This film is a good rental option for anyone interested in the Atacama Desert or Chilean history. For fans of Guzman's work, the inclusion of five short films will be a strong incentive to purchase the DVD for their personal libraries.
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