"Nostalgia for Light" confronts life's big issues

Fri May 14, 2010 3:09am EDT

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CANNES (Hollywood Reporter) - As the Surrealists knew, juxtaposing two completely unrelated objects can produce electrifying and unexpected results, as it does in Patricio Guzman's remarkable documentary "Nostalgia for the Light."

Here the director, famed for his political films, approaches the tragedy of the thousands of Chileans who disappeared during the dictatorship of August Pinochet through the lens of a giant telescope trained on the universe. What comes out of this unlikely comparison between astronomy and history is a totally new perspective, something broader, with glimpses into deeper meanings. Hard to place outside festivals, it should nevertheless vaunt strong critical support for special releases.

Opening on disorienting images of a mammoth telescope, Katell Djian's camera circles around the device until it resembles an alien robot. We are inside one of the world's most important observatories in Chile's Atacama desert, the only place on Earth where the lack of humidity allows astronomers an unobstructed view of the heavens.

The same unnatural dryness has other, more human effects. It mummifies bodies -- in an area where human beings have lived for 10,000 years. Only as the film progresses does Guzman begin to touch on the film's other theme, that of women like the indomitable 70-year-olds Vicky and Violetta, who come to the arid desert every day to sift sand in hopes of finding the remains of their loved ones who were murdered during the Pinochet regime.

What do these disparate things have in common? For Guzman, who accompanies the viewer through the film via the soothing, meditative voice of the narrator, the answer is that they both involve research into the past. Because light from the stars reaches Earth after much time has elapsed, it is actually "the past" that astronomers see through their telescopes; while the stubborn women who search the desert for mass graves also focus on the past.

Guzman goes beyond a basic science/religion dichotomy (mentioned by a young astronomer at the beginning of the film) to probe the universe for secrets into the origins of man, without canceling out our obligations to history and the moral obligation to hold the dead in memory. Whether viewers find this juxtaposition is convincing or not, they can't fail to be touched by this abstractly fascinating film.

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