Wednesday, 15 August 2012

'Nostalgia for the Light' review:

Veteran Chilean documentarian Patricio Guzmán pushes a lot of the right buttons with 'Nostalgia for the Light': a elegiac film which investigates our relationship with the past. This includes the distant, galactic past as gleaned by astronomers, using the light of long-dead stars to uncover the secrets behind existence, as well as archaeologists who scratch through the earth looking for evidence of our more recent, immediate past - sifting through the soil for human remains whose calcium was formed in the Big Bang so long ago. Yet the film also looks at smaller, more intimate forms of remembering, as Chile comes to terms with the horrors of the Pinochet-era 1970s.

There is an architect and former political prisoner, who reconstructs images of concentration camps from memory. Meanwhile, there are dozens of bereaved women who comb through the Atacama Desert in a possibly vain search for the bones of murdered loved ones - unable to let go of the past and forsaking the present. One woman dedicates her life to taking care of victims of torture - something Guzmán's narration describes as working in the past. It is even suggested, by one scientist, that the present itself is an illusion: that everything we see and hear is from the past, even if only by millionths of a second. Light is itself nostalgic is the point, yet it is also erasing the past - as a gallery of photos of the "disappeared" subtly conveys, with many of the portraits long-since faded by the sun.

It is fascinating to ponder the relationship between the history of existence and our own, smaller scale trauma as insignificant creatures wondering about on a doomed space-rock - and I admire Guzmán for making an attempt at joining these dots and asking a lot of the right questions. However, the film itself often strains to make its point and sometimes it even feels exploitative of its subjects - most notably as an elderly woman's Alzheimer's is casually used as the basis for a tortured metaphor. The subject matter here - both life, the universe and everything and the story of Chile under Pinochet - is spellbinding, but the execution is sadly lacking. It's inherently profound stuff and I have a feeling various images and soundbites will stay with me, yet 'Nostalgia for the Light' is, to me, a conceptual triumph as opposed to an actual one.

'Nostalgia for the Light' is on limited release in the UK, rated '12A' by the BBFC.

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