Nostalgia for the Light balances horror and awe

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A documentary by Patricio Guzmán. In Spanish with English subtitles. Unrated. Plays Friday, Sunday, and Monday, March 25, 27, and 28, and Wednesday and Thursday, March 30 and 31, at the Vancity Theatre

The present is the most fragile moment in Nostalgia for the Light, which looks to ancient history and future discoveries for a fleeting glimpse of where we are today.


Watch the trailer for Nostalgia for the Light.

The light that Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán is longing for here, in this swooningly beautiful documentary, is that which shone down upon his peaceful childhood before a U.S.–backed military coup turned his homeland into a nightmarish prison. He also seeks traces of stars that died billions of years ago, via the telescopes that fascinated him in his long-ago Santiago idyll.

These elements and many more meet in Chile’s Atacama desert, a spectacular high, arid plateau. In this remote region, scientists probe the heavens, archaeologists search for the earliest signs of civilization, and a band of weary women comb the parched earth for fragments of their loved ones, tortured and killed by Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s minions in a massive concentration camp nearby—itself a vestige of a salt-mining outpost run on near–slave labour in the 19th century.

All that drama is a lot for one place to bear, so Guzmán—himself imprisoned and exiled by the dictatorship—keeps a light, poetic touch throughout. He alternates fluidly between gorgeous images (including breathtaking shots from the Hubble telescope) and fascinating interviews with exceptionally articulate people in several fields. These include a veteran archaeologist who decries the human tendency to prefer the distant past to recent events and several young astronomers who are adult children of Pinochet’s victims.

The latter, appropriately enough, take the long view—with science and time providing an acrobatic balance between horror and awe. If a movie about evil can be illuminated entirely by love, Nostalgia for the Light is it.

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