Program Review: “Patricio Guzmán’s Chile Trilogy”
Harvard Film Archive, Feb 23-29.
Nostalgia for the Light (2010) on Feb 23 @ 4 pm and Feb 29 @ 9 pm.
The Pearl Button (2015) on Feb 28 @ 9 pm and Feb 29 @ 7 pm.
The Cordillera of Dreams (2019) on Feb 23 @ 7 pm and Feb 28 @ 7 pm.
Filmmaker Patricio Guzmán didn’t intend to leave his native Chile. The director, who was among the tens of thousands of individuals imprisoned by General Augusto Pinochet following the coup d’etat that killed President Salvador Allende in 1973 and led to a 17-year dictatorship, was forced into exile that year but shortly thereafter gained international acclaim with his three-part documentary The Battle of Chile (1975-79).
Today, roughly 30 years after the end of the dictatorship, Guzmán still lives abroad in France and only returns to Chile to visit and make films. This lifelong diaspora from his home country has informed all his work made since, up to and including his most recent film, The Cordillera of Dreams, a poetic examination of Chilean national identity through a dual lens—first, the Andes mountain range that runs along the country’s borders, and second, the political protest movements that have gained momentum in the post-Pinochet era. The Cordillera of Dreams is the third in a trilogy by the filmmaker, following Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button; with each work, Guzmán depicts one of Chile’s natural wonders as a metaphor for the psychic wound left on the nation, and Guzmán himself, by Pinochet’s reign of terror.
All three films follow a similar pattern: Guzmán provides his own subjective narration, expounding on the natural beauty of Chile while simultaneously taking a scientific approach to the topic at hand. In Nostalgia for the Light, the subject is the night sky observable from the Atacama Desert, as well as the astronomers who research the universe from its grounds. In The Pearl Button, he turns to the indigenous Kawésqar and Yaghan populations living in the Chilean Patagonia near the Pacific Ocean, probing the country’s colonialist history and exploring the customs and languages of the tribes. And in The Cordillera of Dreams, Guzmán interviews colleagues and fellow artists in exile about the significance of the Andes mountains as a symbol of national identity, and about how Chile’s unique geography has shaped its history.
Though Guzmán’s work is by no means deceptive, there is an ambiguity present at the opening of each film. At first they seem to play like a PBS production, or a classroom educational film; and occasionally they even play like travelogues, characterized by Guzmán’s unaffected narration, visualized with breathtaking nature footage, and punctuated by talking heads. In Nostalgia for the Light, he speaks with scientists about astrophysics and astronomy, asking questions about how the speed of light affects our visual perception and how organic matter on Earth has its origins from cosmic activity. The Pearl Button begins as an ethnographic history lesson, teaching the audience about the customs of the Kawésqar—their language, and the significance of water and canoes to their culture. But the camera often lingers longer than would be expected from such a typical documentary format, fostering an ambient energy and allowing viewers ample time to soak in, say, the pattern of a star cluster, or the scope of an icy valley. Though in each instance Guzmán’s voice-over is low and monotone, there’s a melancholy in his delivery that becomes more apparent as he teases out the political allegory of the given film.
Throughout all three films, the scars of Pinochet live beneath the imagery; and the trauma of the people is contrasted against the immutable observation of the landmarks. Nostalgia for the Light turns to women who search the Atacama for the remains of the disappeared whose bodies were dumped in the desert by the police state—young people, many teenagers, left in shallow graves. As Guzmán’s camera captures dust particles floating in the wind, the film returns to the scientific questions about origins of life on Earth, and brings them into the poetic realm by showing how these human remains will return to the environment that created them. Guzmán’s questions to the scientists are contextualized, and the poetic tapestry of the film comes into place.
In The Pearl Button, the shift comes only in the film’s final act as Guzmán moves from the Kawésqar people’s connection with the water to the story of the 1,200-1,400 bodies unceremoniously dumped in the sea by Pinochet’s secret police force, the DINA. Guzmán, in his typical monotone, tells us of the corpses of dissidents that were tied to steel girders and wrapped in plastic only to slowly decay and finally “take on the shape of the ocean.” During a lengthy sequence that ends The Pearl Button, Guzmán and a crew use a dummy to show exactly how bodies were prepared by the DINA. When Guzmán cuts to a shot of a rusted girder fished from the ocean, it’s displayed on a monochrome background, the camera canvassing over it to reflect on this inanimate symbol. But as in Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán has carefully laid the groundwork for The Pearl Button‘s pivot to a more contemplative mode. In earlier sequences, when asking his Kawésqar interviewees to repeat words back in their language, he starts with thematic words such as “water”; and when he eventually asks for their word for “police,” we learn there isn’t one. Again the camera lingers on his subject, allowing us to consider a society without even a conception of law enforcement.
Nostalgia and The Pearl Button read as elegies for Chile, where the sky and the ocean are intrinsically linked to the people. But where the first two films strike a mournful tone, The Cordillera of Dreams manages to find a message of hope: Guzmán tackles the ongoing protests that have occurred across Chile post-Pinochet and gives considerable attention to his friend Pablo Salas, a documentarian who has captured raw footage of marches and riots dating back to the days of the dictatorship. In one early scene in The Cordillera, writer Jorge Baradit explains to Guzmán: “Geographically, the cordillera is like a wall that separates us from the world. Or like a wall that protects us from the rest of the world. There is this double aspect, I like to think of the cordillera as a sea that makes us an island. I like this idea of islands, because islands create cultures that are closed and powerful, with a strong local identity.” The great mountains, longer than they are tall, serve here as a powerful image for the dreams of the people.
Whereas most of The Cordillera’s first half is composed of talking-head interview clips and bird’s-eye views of the Andes, much of the second half is comprised of Salas’ raw footage edited into a lyrical ode to the passion of mass political movements. In this third work, Guzmán marries the cinema verité style imagery he employed in The Battle of Chile with the metaphysical approach of his recent trilogy. However, responding to questions sent via email and translated in both directions, Guzmán did not appear to make much of the contrast between these two modes of nonfiction filmmaking—“I don’t make basic differences between the ‘poetic documentary’ and the ‘cinema verité documentary,’ especially in my case,” he wrote. “I’ve been making documentary films for a long time and do what I want. The various types of documentaries can be joined in a normal way. There are no borders. The problem is maintaining quality.”
The Cordillera was completed prior to the current wave of ongoing protests and riots Chile has faced since October 2019, which has led the government to declare a state of emergency as the people call for sweeping economic reforms addressing inequality, rising costs of living and political corruption—all of which have their roots in the reign of Augusto Pinochet. Asked by Dig, Guzmán said he believed the protests are “the beginning of a great social and political transformation, which could already be glimpsed” while filming The Cordillera. While Nostalgia for the Light and The Pearl Button pay tribute to the dead, and find solace despite the lack of closure the dictatorship afforded, The Cordillera recontextualizes those traumatic memories as part of a continuous story, one still being written.