Jan. 18 2012 12:00 AM

Documentary ´Nostalgia for the Light´ examines Chilean history, both ancient and recent


“Nostalgia for the Light” begins slowly, with beautiful images of celestial bodies shining brightly in the sky, interspersed with shots of titanic mountains dried out in the desert sun. 

Chile´s Atacama Desert is an expansive plain with the perfect environment for stargazing: Isolated and removed from civilization, its perpetually clear skies and seeming lack of life give it grandeur not unlike outer space. Like the cosmos, the desert holds secrets well preserved by its vastness, and the desire for discovery burns in the hearts of scientists and non-scientists alike.

This desert is peopled mainly by astronomers staring upwards and archaeologists looking down, both groups trying to make sense of the universe by looking at artifacts from the past. But elsewhere in this desert, the remains of Chacabuco concentration camp provide yet another lens through which the past can be viewed.  This camp is one of many places where Augusto Pinochet’s regime perpetrated its killings of thousands upon thousands of Chileans in the 1970s.

The quests of the astronomers and archeologists to observe and understand the past are mirrored by the intense searching of women probing the desert for loved ones lost during Pinochet’s wanton dictatorship.Locating “disappeared” loved ones is critical for them and to all Chileans who are searching for meaning years after the military dictatorship left its deep scars.

The film plays out like a choreographed ballet between the subjects of astronomy and archaeology and their relationship to the Atacama Desert, as well as their importance to the history and culture of Chile. Director Patricio Guzmán displays the breathtaking sights of the desert and the clear night sky above, then interviews the scientists about their fascination with the past.  In the course of telling their stories, though, they become less astounded by stars and ancient remains as they are by the  recent past.

It becomes clear that Chile’s obsession with the stars above and the ground underfoot may have as much to do with advancing scientific knowledge as it does with finding a way to cope with the immeasurable loss of so much human life.

One astronomer, Valentina, relates how her hobby has helped her to deal with the loss of her parents.  Astronomy is comforting to her because of its themes of cycle and re-birth, and its affirmation that the universe began long before the cruel acts now held in the memory of the survivors, and that it will not end for eons to come. 

“Nothing really comes to an end,” she says. Not as long as we remember the past.