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Nostalgia for the Light

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On a rainy Bank Holiday evening yesterday, we drove through the last murky dregs of the-summer-that-never-was to Sheffield to see the Chilean director Patrizio Guzmán's wonderful Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la Luz).

Guzmán is a documentary filmmaker and a leftist, who is most famous for the epic three-part study of the rise and fall of Allende, The Battle of Chile.

The Chilean coup is a major theme of Guzmán's latest offering. But Nostalgia for the Light is not a political film in any conventional sense. It's an utterly unique personal meditation on astronomy, national and personal memory, history, politics and mortality, set in the arid wastes of Chile's Atacama desert.

Here, in the midst of a landscape that looks more like Mars than earth, the dry climatic conditions provide a vantage point of exceptional clarity for astronomers, who have established a sophisticated network of telescopes and monitoring technologies for observing stars and solar systems - a process whose origins coincided with the fall of Allende and the Pinochet dictatorship.

The extraordinary images captured by these telescopes and cameras provide the film with sequences of breathtaking beauty, which alternate with Guzmán's own equally striking photography of the fantastic landscape of the Atacama.

Guzmán uses his camera like an archeologist's excavation tools, patiently uncovering human traces in a seemingly blank and uninhabitable landscape that include rock drawings drawn by pre-Columbian shepherds, 1,000-year-old dessicated corpses, and cemeteries of Indians and nomadic workers who died in the desert in the nineteenth century.

This footage is interspersed with interviews with astronomers and archeologists working in the desert, and accompanied by a voiceover narration from Guzmán himself, in which he reflects on his lifelong passion for astronomy, on the lost paradise of childhood, on the history of the desert, on the legacy of the Chilean coup, on history, archeology and the importance of remembering.

The title of the film is related to an idea expressed in the film by one eloquent young astronomer, who points out that in astronomical terms there is no such thing as the present moment and that everything that happens already belongs to the past, from the speed of light to the time it takes for a camera and microphone to record an interview.

Guzmán extends this notion of the 'fragile present' to Chile's more recent tragic history. The Pinochet dictatorship used the remoteness and isolation of Atacama as a convenient location for one of the worst of its concentration camps for political prisoners, in a former settlement once used by nineteenth century miners.

Atacama was also used as a secret burial ground for prisoners murdered by the regime, and today, nearly forty years after the coup, relatives of the disappeared still go to the desert to search for the remains of their relatives and loved ones.

Guzmán's interviews with the women who scour the desert for bones and traces of the disappeared are deeply moving. In examining their motives for this seemingly futile and obsessive quest, he insists on memory as an essential component of human experience, and transforms the seemingly inhuman wastes of the Atacama into a kind of mirror that celebrates and reinforces the presence of humanity in surprisingly hopeful ways.

Only through the act of remembering, he argues, can societies and individuals hope to live as human beings within the 'fragile present' - no matter how painful the memories may be. Those without memory, on the other hand, do not really live anywhere.

If all this sounds a little too abstract, philosophical and even pretentious for a night out at the cinema, don't cheat yourself. For there is nothing either pretentious about this profound and deeply humane masterpiece that makes much of contemporary cinema look like shallow, pre-packaged dross.

Incredibly, Nostalgia for Light was rejected by fifteen television companies and the Centre National de la Cinématographie in Guzmán's adopted country France, during its search for funding and subsidies. The completion of the film was largely due to the participation of Guzmán's wife Renata Sachse as producer, and it was financed mostly by personal loans.

The overall budget eventually reached a paltry 600,000 euros, and the fact that Guzmán had such trouble obtaining them speaks volumes about the priorities of a film industry whose obsession with the lowest (and most profitable) denominator has too often made it fearful of anything that cannot be easily categorized and commercialised.

Anyone who expects that cinema should be more than entertainment or diversion can only be grateful for this jewel of a film, that has pushed the boundaries of the documentary genre to create a deeply affecting work of art.