(a film review by Mark R. Leeper)

CAPSULE: This documentary is by turns spectacular and moving. In one Chilean desert astronomers look for the origins of the universe, archeologist find preserved mummies from pre-Columbian culture, and the survivors of the 1973 Chile coup look for the remains of their loved ones. Do not expect a lot of scientific knowledge, but the political message is strong and sincere. Rating: +1 (-4 to +4) or 6/10

In NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT Patricio Guzman looks at three kids of people who study the past in three very different ways. Their work brings them together in the Atacama Desert of Chile, nearly two miles above sea level. The unique conditions of this desert make it a special place for looking at the past is three different depths. One comes for the altitude, one for the dryness, and one for the history of what happened here. It soon become apparent that it is the political story that is the real reason for this documentary.

The altitude of the desert makes it a particularly good place for astronomical observatories. With less atmosphere above to distort observations these observatories offer a much better view of the starscape. Astronomers look at the cosmic light of the sky. The light that they see may have been traveling from the nearest stars for only a few years. Light from Proxima Centauri has traveled only 4.2 years. And some light that they see may go back to the beginnings of the universe. The light from the furthest light sources has travelled to the Earth since shortly after the time of the Big Bang.

The desert is the driest place on Earth because of the altitude. This preserves pre-Columbian artifacts like mummified remains of prehistoric peoples who passed this way. Archeologists come to this desert to study and dig for the artifacts of Pre-Columbian peoples.

But most importantly for director Guzman's purpose there is also recent history to be dug up here. In 1973 army general Augusto Pinochet took dictatorial control of the Chilean government after a coup d'etat that removed from power President Salvador Allende. There followed a reign of terror as Pinochet seized control and crushed his opposition. In the Atacama Desert prisoners of the Pinochet government were imprisoned in concentration camps and many were tortured and murdered. Along with the bodies of pre-Columbian dead out under the surface of the desert are the individual and mass graves those who were murdered by the military government as whose bodies were hidden.

This military coup has been the core of Patricio Guzman's films since his 2001 film THE PINOCHET CASE and his 2004 SALVADOR ALLENDE. Guzman begins by showing us the spectacular astronomical photographs taken from the Atacama Observatory and also beautiful desert photography. We are told that Atacama has the largest telescopes in the world. (That is not quite true. See below.) Interviews tell us of the work of the astronomers and their backgrounds, but the focus shifts to the people--mostly women are shown--who comb the desert looking for remnants of loved ones whom the Pinochet government brought to the high desert and murdered. Guzman's previous films tell the history of the coup in much more detail. Here he just collects interviews, mostly from the women searching for remains of husbands and children. But the astronomers and archeologists also discuss the political history and its implications.

Patricio Guzman shows his three communities of searchers, but from early on there is never any doubt what the real purpose of this film is. If you want to get a better understanding of space or archeology, National Geographic has some very good documentaries. If you want to better understand the Allende and Pinochet coup and the damage it did, Guzman's documentary SALVADOR ALLENDE is a good starting point, and I would assume his film THE PINOCHET CASE is equally as good. NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT is more about the irony of the three groups drawn to the same high desert. I rate NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT a +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 6/110. NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT will get its US release March 18, 2011.

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					Mark R. Leeper
					Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper