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Nostalgia for the Light

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Nostalgia for the Light - Cover Art

Nostalgia for the Light - Cover Art

Courtesy Icarus Films
Rock Art and Observatory in the Atacama Desert

Rock Art and Observatory in the Atacama Desert

Courtesy Icarus Films

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Nostalgia for the Light. 2010. Directed by Patricio Guzmán, Atacama Productions. Released in Blu-Ray and DVD format by Icarus Films in 2012. DVD ISBN 6314402670, Blu-ray 6314402697. Runtime: 86 minutes, with 81 minutes in five additional shorts included on the disk. In Spanish with English subtitles.

Nostalgia for the Light (original title Nostalgia de la Luz), is a film by Patricio Guzmán, produced in 2010, and a winner of the Francois Chalais award at the Cannes Film Festival that year (and many others since). It was released on DVD and Blu-Ray in 2011, and presented on the American Public Broadcasting System's program POV in October of 2012, where I caught a glimpse of it late one sleepless night. After some amount of searching and cajoling on my part, Icarus Films sent me a screener of the film. I may never recover.

Searching the Atacama Desert

The film features the high elevation Atacama desert of Chile, a place on earth where there is no humidity: the desert is visible as a brown expanse in photographs taken from outer space of our blue-green planetary marble. Here, astronomers have found the Atacama's clear and translucent atmosphere a perfect place to probe the outer universe in search of our origins: you can even see some of the planets in the daylight. Here, archaeologists have discovered the oldest preserved mummies in the world, preserved in part by the arid climate. Here you can find geoglyphs and rock art left by endless caravans of llamas, traders of the Inca and Tiwanaku empires who crossed the arid wastes. Here, in the 19th century, miners were virtually enslaved to provide saltpeter and other minerals stored beneath its surface. And here, for 17 grueling years in the 1960s and 1970s, dictator Augusto Pinochet attempted to hide the bodies of thousands of protestors massacred during his bloody coup d'etat.

The film is gorgeously photographed, moving between decades, centuries, millions and billions of years like an observatory telescope, shifting from north to south, east to west and opening its shutters like eyelids to expose almost unbearable realities of past and present Chilean life. The images of the desert are powerful: the desert itself a reflection of the world where nothing is ever completely erased, where atoms and bone fragments dazzle the eye like translucent rain and dust motes dance in the harsh winds.


Sad, sad is the story of all the women who search the Atacama desert for the remains of their disappeared sons and daughters, aware that Pinochet's military junta attempted to excavate the mass graves and remove the evidence: but also aware that small pieces of the human remains were left behind. A foot, a skull fragment, tiny sherds of bones: these pieces found so far are now cataloged and stored in a museum laboratory until they can be identified and reunited with their families.

Intersecting stories tell of Pinochet's concentration camps where internees kept their souls alive by studying the stars; and where Chilean astronomers who are focused on the sky and the planets are also deeply rooted in Chile's recent past. The children of the disappeared, the architect who painstakingly recorded the layout of the concentration camps, the historian who marvels of the forgotten past, all are both archaeologist and astronomer. It is patently clear that there are still people who say "enough is enough, the past is gone and let's move forward", unaware as are the makers of this film that the past is never truly gone.

Bottom Line

Nostalgia for the Light carefully blends these stories from the ancient and not-so-ancient past, in the main feature and in five short bonus films, accounting for another 81 minutes on the DVD. They include additional interviews from astronomers, archaeologists, lawyers, architects, psychologists, sociologists and everyday people. One bone-chilling segment is with the retired general Juan Emilio Cheyre. Together, the short films provide us with insight into the echoes of the past that are still present today. These are important elements for the film as a whole, particularly for those of us who only know of one or two sherds of complexities of the Atacama.

I wanted to see this film because of my glimpse of the beautiful images of the Atacama in it; and because the intersection of archaeology, astronomy and history in such a place drew me. I'm glad I saw it because it is a crash course of what I can believe is the modern-day political and social atmosphere of present-day Chile, healing but still wary of the damage left by the despotic Pinochet government.


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