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Monday 25 September 2017

Dreamy light of the brutal desert

Paul Whitington

nostalgia for the light

(Club, IFI, 90 minutes)

Director: Patricio Guzman Stars: Gaspar Galaz, Lautaro Nunez, Luis Henriquez

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The Atacama Desert, a uniquely desolate 600-mile strip of land between the high Andes and Chile's Pacific coast, is officially the driest place in the world. Some parts of it are so dry there's no record of rain ever falling, and in this parched, salty wilderness, historical and archaeological artifacts are miraculously preserved.

There are rock drawings by pre-Columbian shepherds that date back 2,000 years, and human bodies buried a thousand years ago have been unearthed practically intact. The area's high altitude and clear, thin air have also made it a Mecca for astronomers, and several of the world's most sophisticated observatories squat in the Atacama on higher ground.

It's partly these possibilities thrown up by the Atacama's unique microclimate that inspired veteran Chilean documentary-maker Patricio Guzman to make this film, but he was also drawn to the area by another, more sombre fact.

After Augusto Pinochet led a US-backed coup in Chile in 1973, the Atacama was chosen as the site for Chile's biggest concentration camp, and many of the 3,000 'disappeared' were buried there after being tortured and killed.

These disparate themes might seem more appropriately the subjects of three documentaries than one, but somehow Guzman manages to blend them coherently into this dreamy but absorbing film.

As Nostalgia for the Light opens, the innards of a giant antique telescope are lovingly photographed while Guzman, in a sporadic but poetic narration, explains his own nostalgia for the Chile of his youth, when the country was pleasantly insulated from the problems of the wider world, and the President could still stroll the streets of Santiago unaccompanied by heavies.

All that ended with the rise to power of the benevolent Marxist Salvador Allende, and the subsequent military coup.

In the Atacama Desert, inmates of Pinochet's very unpleasant detention camp watched the stars at night under the instruction of an imprisoned astronomer.

It was a form of rebellion, as the infinite heavens put the inmates' predicament in context, but the Pinochet thugs were not amused and tried to put a stop to it. They weren't amused by anything very much, and after they killed 3,000 or so political opponents and buried them in shallow graves in the desert, they unearthed most and moved them again so they'd disappear forever.

Chile is now once again at peace and the Atacama wilderness is home to happily cohabiting astronomers and archaeologists. But it's also patrolled by small groups of elderly women who won't give up the seemingly hopeless search for their loved ones' bones.

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