Nostalgia for the Light

Released:  2011

Cast:  Gaspar Galaz, Lautaro Nunez, Luis Henriquez, Miguel Lawner, Victor Gonzalez, Vicky Saavedra, Violeta Berrios, George Preston, Valentina Rodriguez

SUMMARY:  This film is a documentary narrated by its director, Patricio Guzman.  As it begins, he speaks about how he developed a fascination with astronomy as a child in Chile, where everything was peaceful and idyllic.  However, in the early 1970s there was a coup that overthrew the government and plunged the country into turmoil.  Despite this, astronomers and other scientists continued to flock to Chile, in particular the Atacama Desert.  The Atacama Desert has virtually no moisture, meaning that it has no humidity:  this makes the air very thin and clear, and easy to view the stars.  Although nothing now lives in the desert — including insects and plants — traces of earlier peoples exist in rock carvings and city ruins.  Over the years, ancient corpses have also been found, mummified due to the extremely dry conditions.  The desert contains a huge observatory, where multiple countries study the skies in cooperation.  However, the desert has another, darker secret:  it was the burial place of many victims of former dictator Augusto Pinochet.  Concentration camps once existed in the desert, including one on the site of a former mine, where political prisoners lived.  Thousands of people were also tortured by the regime.  Many of the prisoners who died in the camps were buried in the desert, and some mass graves have been found.  However, the military claims that it dug up the other bodies and tossed them into the sea.  Many local women, often related to the victims, have searched the desert for signs of their loved ones for nearly thirty years.  They do not completely believe that the bodies were put in the ocean, and spend their days wandering through the desert with shovels.  They have made discoveries in the past, and continue to find small pieces of bone, but their numbers are dwindling, and the findings are becoming more and more scarce.  The film ends with an interview with Valentina Rodriguez, who is the child of parents who were killed by the regime.  She was raised by her grandparents, and grew up to become an astronomer.

MY TAKE:  I know next to nothing about Chile, so pretty much all of this information was new to me.  I guess I never really thought that deserts would have humidity, having never been in one, but apparently they do, and this can cloud the view of the stars.  The Atacama is different, and is described as being basically like the surface of Mars.  There is literally nothing out there — not even bugs, which is hard to imagine.  The desert can even be seen from space because of its lack of moisture and humidity.  All of this makes for a terrific place to study astronomy, which people from many countries have been doing for decades.  While these people spend their time in the desert looking up at the sky, others spend their days looking down at the ground, still searching for murdered family members.  Again, I know very little about Chile and its history, so I didn’t know there was a brutal dictatorship that had been in power in Chile for nearly twenty years.  Very little of this was explained in the movie, and that was my main issue:  I wanted more information about that historical point.  Guzman does up-close interviews with two of the women who search in the desert, but very little is explained about what happened to their missing family members.  Basically, there wasn’t much backstory for this part of the film.  For me, having this backstory would have been both interesting and informative, and probably would have improved my opinion of the movie.  As it was, while there were some pretty impressive images, I thought the astronomical part was rather boring, and the history part needed fleshed out.

RATING:  Kinda boring.

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