Nostalgia for the Light Review

Patricio Guzmán’s exceptional documentary.

The Atacama Desert occupies some 40,600 square miles of South American and is generally considered to be the driest desert on the planet. Situated in northern Chile it has a terrain more readily consistent with that of Mars – to the point where NASA now uses it regularly as a test base. For filmmaker Patricio Guzmán it is not how the Atacama can aid us in the future which prompts his interest, but rather its services as a “gateway to the past”. Thanks to its distinctive geographical qualities – a combination of high altitude and low moisture creating thin, dry air – the desert’s ability to preserve is really quite remarkable: pre-Colombian drawings more than 2,000 years old still exist seemingly untouched by age. Furthermore, these properties when combined with the lack of interference from both light pollution and radio waves also creates the ideal circumstances for astronomical observation. Scientists have been making use of the Atacama for decades as a means of peering through the light years and beyond the stars.

Guzmán remains best-known for his epic three-part documentary from the late seventies, The Battle of Chile. Released between 1975 and 1979, the film chronicled the country’s turbulent political situation of the time as Salvador Allende’s government was overthrown by a right-wing coup d’état. Under such circumstances it had to be made covertly: footage – which had been shot on film supplied by Chris Marker – had to be smuggled out of the country and into Cuba so that editing could be completed there, all driven on by Guzmán’s determination. In the years since such politically motivated cinema has remained a constant for the director, including 2001’s The Pinochet Case and 2004’s Salvador Allende. Whilst Icarus Films have been making a number of his films available in the US, the same cannot be said for the UK. Indeed, Nostalgia for the Light represents a first for Guzmán: a British DVD (and, a few weeks later, a British Blu-ray).

The HD treatment is an understandable step. The astronomical dimension regularly sees Guzmán’s film heading out into the cosmos for some truly beautiful imagery, though that’s not to say that this is latest effort is any less politically committed than any of his previous works. That “gateway to the past” which the Atacama provides allows the director to deftly interweave a narrative that is both scientific documentary and recent political history. Providing his own voice-over commentary Guzmán points out early on that the discovery of the desert’s distinctive properties when it comes to astronomical observation coincided with the world media’s discovery of the country thanks to the 1973 coup d’état. From this point onwards the two are inextricably connected in the filmmaker’s mind thanks to a whole web of connections. In the astronomers he finds revolutionaries – they’re determination to continue in the face of Pinochet’s anti-science regime itself an act of rebellion. In the Atacama itself he finds evidence of the mass torture and genocide inflicted on Chileans during that regime – mummified remains still visible on this moisture-less landscape that is also populated by mothers and grandmothers searching for evidence of their loved ones’ execution.

Nostalgia for the Light blends talking heads (alternately eloquent and emotional depending on the interviewee) with a superb sense of visual precision. Cinematographer Katell Djian most recognisable work in the UK is likely to be his collaborations with Nicolas Philibert (Every Little Thing, Être et avoir, Back to Normandy) but his efforts here bare little resemblance to that particular brand of vérité. Instead we find exact framing and an often static camera; if we do get a travelling shot then it is of the most delicate kind. Needless to say, the desert landscape punctuated only by white-domed observatories have a visual splendour all of their own and cannot help but lend themselves to this style. Yet the precision also speaks of Guzmán’s overall control as he teases out the various connections and parallels between his chosen subjects. There’s a great deal of material crammed into the slender 90-minute running time – and he shot a great deal more resulting in five standalone documentary shorts which appear as extras – but it is never handled with anything less than absolutely assuredness and command. The dexterity of it all is really quite remarkable and, for many, will prove to be a superb introduction of Guzmán’s body of work. Hopefully Nostalgia for the Light’s critical success will see more of his efforts making it to the UK.


Nostalgia for the Light is being released by New Wave Films as a DVD edition on the 10th of September with a Blu-ray to follow (at time of writing) on the 22nd of October. For review purposes a DVD was supplied and so it is this version considered below.

The film is presented at a ratio of 1.78:1, anamorphically enhanced, and with a choice of either DD2.0 or DD5.1 soundtracks. Both sound and image are pristine, the latter in particular impressing as fully as it should. Clarity and detail are superb, colours are crisp and sharp, and there appears to be no problems whatsoever in the transfer. Guzmán’s voice-over is in Spanish, as are most of the talking heads (there is some spoken English), and these come accompanied with optional English subtitles. (According to the reviews of the Region 1 disc from Icarus, English subs on that edition are burnt-in and the image interlaced.)

Extras amount to the original theatrical trailer plus five accompanying shorts comprised of footage which never made the final cut. To most filmmakers these would simply become deleted scenes, yet Guzmán has opted to make five standalone films each concentrating on their own individual subject matter. Chile, a Galaxy of Problems is the longest at just over a half-hour in length. It is also the most obviously political of these additional pieces, the others focusing more on the astronomy angle as their titles suggest: Oscar Saa, Technician of the Stars; José Maza, Sky Traveller; Maria Teresa and the Brown Dwarf; and Astronomers from My Neighbourhood. As the footage for all of these films was shot at the same time as Nostalgia for the Light they also share the same personnel and style as the main feature and come with music from Miguel Miranda and José Miguel Tobar. English subtitles are once again optional and the overall presentations are very good.

Anthony Nield

Updated: Sep 10, 2012

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