Falling for Nostalgia for the Light

Geoff Andrew describes how he fell in love with a new documentary tracing director Patricio Guzmán’s boyhood passion for astronomy to the awesome expanses of the Atacama desert and a meditation on the universe and Chile’s dark history.

Geoff Andrew
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A couple of years ago, at the Cannes Film Festival, I fell in love. The object of my affections was a film – Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz), by Patricio Guzmán, the exiled Chilean documentarist famous for the three-part 1970s epic The Battle of Chile (La batalla de Chile) – and my desire was to programme it in an extended run at BFI Southbank. It took a while, but my dream came true, thanks to the UK distributor New Wave Films; not only that, but we’re accompanying the run with a retrospective of Guzmán’s earlier work and welcoming the director on-stage for an interview with the season’s curator, Michael Chanan.

What, you may ask, were the characteristics that gave rise to this love at first sight? My first response, admittedly somewhat predictably, would be ‘beauty’; visually, Nostalgia for the Light is quite wonderful to behold. But rest assured that its beauty is more than skin-deep; it is notable for its quiet, deeply compassionate humanity. Still, many films are beautiful, and I don’t fall in love with each and every one of them. The real reason for my ardour, I suspect, was the fact that the film stood out from the crowd, from its mysterious opening scene to its profoundly moving ending; in short, it immediately struck me as unique. That’s extremely rare in an artform as genre-oriented as the cinema. And what more could one possibly ask of a love-object?

The film’s peculiarity (and I mean the term as a compliment!) extends even to its place in Guzmán’s own body of work. Like so much of his oeuvre, the film is about the importance of remembrance. But where many of his films have been explicitly political in dealing with events in his homeland – notably the early 1970s conflict between Allende and the military, and the ‘disappearances’ that marked Pinochet’s subsequent reign of terror – Nostalgia for the Light begins, very personally, with Guzmán’s reminiscences about his boyhood passion for astronomy. Those memories lead on to the Atacama desert, and a meditation on geology, archaeology, history, the universe, existence…

If this makes the film sound a bit pretentious, fear not. It’s a genuinely philosophical film, grounded in a spirit of inquiry rather than polemics – but it’s also highly accessible; its idiosyncratic, measured, consistently engrossing line of argument is as clear as the starry skyscapes gloriously caught by Guzmán’s camera. He cares as much about the future as he does about the past, as much about the individual as about the cosmos – and he knows that in order to live, honestly and fully, we must somehow learn to accept its inevitable and often cruel concomitant, death. But perhaps the most remarkable of the many wonders of Guzmán’s film is that, even though he shows us some of the darker aspects of our history, he never lets us forget that there is still light. And that light is the source both of the cinema and of life itself.

Nostalgia for the Light is released at BFI Southbank on 13 July.

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