Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: As we roll out our picks for the best films of the decade so far, several A.V. Club writers stump for favorites that didn’t make the list.
Late into Nostalgia For The Light, Patricio Guzmán’s documentary exploration of the contradictions inherent to Chile’s Atacama Desert, we meet an astronomer named Valentina Rodriguez. Rodriguez never really knew her parents—they were political dissidents who were “disappeared” and, no doubt, executed by soldiers of Augusto Pinochet’s authoritarian government. Pinochet set up an interment camp for dissidents in the aforementioned desert, the same one in which Rodriguez works. The driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert offers some of the clearest views of the night sky. Because it takes the light from stars so long to make its way to Earth, the astronomers who study them are looking, literally, into the past: Many of the stars they’re seeing disappeared millions of years ago.
While the Atacama Desert provides unimpeded views into the interstellar past, its earthly past is far more difficult to probe. Women who have suffered similar fates as Rodriguez’s have been combing the desert relentlessly for years, scouring the area around the observatory in the hopes of finding the bones of their loved ones, so that they might give them a proper burial and find some peace. The task is largely a hopeless one, and these searchers seem doomed to toil in a horrific kind of purgatory.
Rodriguez appears as a kind of bridge between the film’s twin narratives, an astronomer who’s also a victim of the Pinochet regime. Rodriguez explains that while she does not know where her parents’ bones are, she finds some solace when she gazes through her observatory’s telescope into the night sky. As she points out, the calcium in the stars she studies is the same calcium that makes up her parents’ unfound bones. It was all created together in the same place at the beginning of time, inside the Big Bang. Earthly and cosmic matter, bones and stars, humans and galaxies—all are connected to an event that reaches far beyond our lives here on Earth.
Nostalgia For The Light is a superbly intelligent and poignant film from its opening scenes, but it’s in this moment that it transcends the subject matter of the Atacama Desert and takes on a cosmic profundity, providing insight into the smallness of death and the vastness of the universe. The film ceases to be about Chile and becomes, suddenly, about the meaning of life. Rodriguez’s musings speak to a larger plane of existence, one that transcends the worst horrors this planet has to offer.
Availability: Nostalgia For The Light is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It can also be rented or purchased digitally through Amazon.