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Nostalgia for the Light Looks into the Haunted Past

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Jul 6, 2011 9:20PM


10,000 feet above sea level, cut off from the ocean and even any clouds by high mountains, the Atacama desert in Chile still waits for the first drop of rain to fall on it. Or at least the first since anybody thought to measure such a thing. Its aridity is so profound that it is in places considered to be sterile: the driest place on the face of the Earth, a land with not a single bug, bird or blade of grass. That did not stop Patricio Guzman from finding plenty to look at there, and his new documentary Nostalgia for the Light, opening at the Siskel Film Center tomorrow, is an unforgettable showcase of the dreams and ghosts he found there.

The same elevation and lack of moisture which foster the extreme desert condition of the Atacama also render the sky above it remarkably transparent, and thus attractive to the astronomers who have constructed enormous telescopes in its remotest interior. Cinematographer Katell Djian's gaze glides gently from the observatories full of astrophysicists peering into the farthest reaches of space in search for light from when the universe to the desolate, moon-like world surrounding them, where archeologists catalog remarkably preserved remains from ancient indigenous people and 19th century miners. Though he begins with the awe of celestial bodies, Guzman, a documentarian who has captured his native Chile with an unwavering eye since the 1973 coup, expertly telescopes his focus between the extremes of immensity of the sky and human scale of the earth, eventually alighting on the human bodies still buried somewhere in the desert by Pinochet's brutal regime.

If a turn to the women still sifting the desert to find their "disappeared" husbands and sons and daughters, looking into a past as murky as the depths of space, sounds pretentious, the deft hand of Guzman which keeps the film from ever feeling so. This is The Tree of Life for people who don't buy Malick's knotty-browed portentousness, a work deeply philosophical and powerfully political without ever feeling academic or preachy. Intimate and poetic, Nostalgia for the Light is one of the best reasons to enter a movie theater this year. It kicks off The Probing Eye of Patricio Guzmán, a retrospective of the filmmaker's work at the Film Center this month in fine style.

Nostalgia for the Light screens for a week at the Gene Siskel Film Center starting Friday.