‘Nostalgia for the Light’ offers a quiet but profound look at the responsibility of memory that all humans share. Its ambitions are grand – it seeks to conflate astronomy and archaeology via the Atacama Desert in Chile – but it’s always grounded in a strong, reflective humanity. It uses these two seemingly disparate scientific fields as a window into the lives of those still affected, nearly 40 years later, by the brutal human rights abuses of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship.
Director Patricio Guzmán’s narration discusses some of the more abstract philosophical considerations of his topics but also pointedly references the difficulties and shame that face any modern nation that aims to erase or obfuscate its own history. The heart of the documentary focuses on the wives of the political prisoners of Pinochet’s concentration camps (also located in the Atacama Desert), who have spent much of their lives searching for the remains of those taken from them. Popular opinion has apparently turned away from their struggle and is no longer interested in discussing it. Listening to their interviews is at once heartbreaking and empowering – their experiences provide evidence of the enormous tragedy that seems inherent in society, but also of the unwavering power of hope.
As a documentary, ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ is incredibly delicate and tactful, and the result is a film that communicates volumes in both emotion and information over the course of just 90 minutes. Guzmán trusts his audience to understand the severity of his topics without indulging in graphic depictions or discussions, and does not resort to saccharine sentimentality, either. He maintains a slow, deliberate pace throughout, and often rests for long moments on awe-inspiring shots of the Atacama and the stars, immersing his viewers and allowing them to better grasp the enormity of his subject. ‘Nostalgia for the Light’ is startlingly moving and honest, reflecting masterfully on ideas that are both infinite and fundamentally personal.