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Nostalgia for the Light

A provocative essay about searching for meaning – in the stars, and in the aftermath of atrocities on earth

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Initially, there seems to be little to connect the work of astronomers with the plight of Chile's infamous "disappeared," but Patricio Guzman's provocative essay, about the Atacama Desert, proves otherwise. The desolate mountainous region is home to observatories (the sky is especially clear here), as well as the detritus of 19th-century salt-mine labor camps and the prisons of Pinochet's regime of the 1970s. Some of these political prisoners were buried, unmarked, in the vast desert; four decades later, women still dig by hand there for the remains.

Thus, Nostalgia weaves the search for knowledge of the universe with both the literal search for lost bodies and the quest to reclaim buried history. (What we see in the stars is light long since past.) Space is exciting, unknown territory, while much of humanity is disheartening, prone to relive the same miseries. But Guzman's film looks for the light -- those faraway twinkles in the sky that hold the secrets of our origins, and the good people of earth, who keep humanity bright.

Guzman builds to his point rather obliquely (it helps if you're already familiar with the past few decades of Chile's history). Much like a functioning telescope, his abstractions eventually come into sharp focus, but his meditative pace demands some patience.

Nostalgia is full of gorgeous imagery -- of outer space, starkly beautiful landscapes and exquisite close-ups -- and Guzman favors noting the elusive scale of both objects and quests: telescopes that seem huge are revealed against the night sky to be tiny, and individuals are barely discernible against the expanse of the desert. Yet both are revealed in intimate close-ups to be enormous in their purpose, seeking no less than to understand the present by sifting through the vastness of past. In Spanish, with subtitles. Fri., July 22, through Wed., July 27. Melwood (AH)


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