Released as Nostalgia for the Light, the film from master documentarian Patricio Guzman transports us to the relatively unknown Atacama Desert in northern Chile. Even from space, the big blue marble on which we live is scarred by the brown patch that is Atacama.
At 10,000 feet in elevation, the desert has absolutely no humidity, and the air is crystalline and dangerously thin. As a result, scientists have fallen in love with the Chilean sky--astronomers found that they could "touch the stars" and began building the planet's largest telescopes in Atacama.
Even without the aid of magnification, the night sky is brilliant with nebulae, constellations and galactic mysteries. But the driest portions of the region have never recorded a drop of precipitation and the land is permeated with salt. No insects, birds or animals have ever survived there, and due to the environmental confluences, human remains are mummified in the desert, frozen in time. As Guzman narrated the nearly impossible-to-believe story, I had to remind myself to breathe--the visuals were overwhelming.
But the mystery of why the Atacama Desert contains so many human remains is a shameful reminder of mid-20th century history. In the 1973 Chilean military coup led by Augusto Pinochet over the democratically elected government of President Salvador Allende, thousands of citizens were murdered and up to 80,000 political prisoners were interned, many of them tortured. Many of the so-called "desaparecidos" (the disappeared) were transported to abandoned mining camps in the Atacama Desert that became makeshift concentration camps.
Most of the prisoners were never accounted for in the two decades that Pinochet remained in power. A few mass graves were discovered, but most Chileans know that only the Atacama and its guardians of stars and planets know the truth.
Nostalgia for Light also introduces astrologers looking to the heavens and a group of women who wander through the desert, sifting scorched earth with their fingers, searching for remains of their husbands, brothers or children. In a beautiful moment near the end of the 90-minute film, two of the women are invited inside a massive structure, which houses a telescope. They look inside the lens while a young astronomer beams. But even he knows that none of his science can assist the women's journey for closure.
Of the countless images of Nostalgia for the Light, one is burned indelibly into my memory: As beautiful images of starbursts and planets dissolve into one another, the camera settles on something that resembles the surface of Mars. But as the lens pans down, we realize that it is not another planet, but a bronzed, seared human skull.