Rating: ★★★½☆

Pasts both collective and personal are thoughtfully examined in Patricio Guzmán’s (The Pinochet Case, Salvador Allende) ethereal documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, as he looks to both the stars and beneath our feet for information about each.

A labour of love for Chilean director Guzmán, one of our first sights is of a giant old German telescope situated in his hometown of Santiago, which serves to juxtapose his simple, provincial upbringing with the infinitesimal place it takes in the universe. Living through General Pinochet’s 1973 coup, in which the very notion of learning science was a grim prospect, Guzmán learned to associate it with hope, and the importance of not forgetting either our own or the world’s history.

Though steeped in some understandably grim detail, the focus here is on beauty in all its forms, specifically space as compared to Chile’s lifeless Atacama Desert, the driest on Earth. For my money, these resplendent sights would make a more valuable IMAX 3D experience than the vast majority of films getting the treatment currently.

Guzmán’s outlining question – asking where we come from – speaks to both scientists and regular folk, opening a discourse both religious and scientific in basis, regardless of beliefs. Philosophy also gets a word in; the notion of time as a concept in the mind, while the physical aspects of our life, projected to us by the sun – which takes 8 minutes to transmit light into our retinas – are in effect relayed from the past.

The Atacama is a significant area for studying the origins of humanity, scientists claim, because it is a gathering point not only for astronomers, with its translucent sky, but the dry Earth makes it a major site of interest for archaeologists. Perhaps in sharing ideas and information, they might provide greater insight. All this peering and digging is inevitably criss-crossed with the history of Chile, and a Coup D’etat that has beleaguered progress. It is paradoxical that scientists there endeavour to discover our grand, ultimate past when their own was only recently being re-written by a dictator.

A glimpse of a nomadic settlement in the Desert that remains untouched, with both belongings and skeletal remains in tact, is the first of many haunting sights the film has to offer. Guzmán’s dialogues with former inmates at Pinochet’s concentration camps are at once harrowing and inspiring, with their astrological observations inside the camp – which the guards prohibited – affording them a small might of so-called “inner freedom”. The prevailing feeling is that these events, while horrific, must be preserved; it is the unfortunate duty of those left behind, in order that we do not repeat them.

More devastating are the interviews with those who continue to trawl the desert in search of their loved one’s remains. Their lack of closure, their sleeplessness, contrasts with that of the scientists, whose quest for answers is less urgent, for personal truth will always trump an ultimate one. The vast landscape these poor souls scour for bone fragments has an immensity not dissimilar from space, and it is only the lucky few who find what they are looking for.

The view of life and of death here is a profoundly philosophical one, that our place in the universe is of formed shapes of calcium, while death is not an end but merely a transformative experience of its own. One young woman whose parents were killed by the regime and has since become an astrologer appears to take comfort in this; it allows her to view the tragedy differently, providing a little reprieve, if not deluding her away from the tragic reality.

While expecting answers from Guzmán’s documentary would be foolish, he conjures a fascinated spirit, a desperation to trace the essence of how we enter this world, and of course, how we exit it. More convincing as a look at grief and loss than it is an investigation of our beginnings, there is nevertheless plenty of immense beauty to marvel at.

Nostalgia for the Light is on limited release from Friday.

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This article was first posted on July 12, 2012