Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán's latest documentary, Nostalgia for the Light (2010), brings together two subjects close to his heart: the near-destruction of his country by General Augusto Pinochet (beginning in 1973) and...astronomy. Guzmán's solemn reverence for the past and his childlike enthusiasm for stargazing create an unusual but affecting experience, mostly due to the documentary's deliberate pace and stunning visuals. The film drops us firmly in Chile's Atacama Desert; it's the planet's driest plateau, enough so that portions of its soil are comparable to the surface of Mars. This isn't exactly the most desirable area to set up camp, but the area's unique climate and global position make it an extremely popular spot for hopeful astronomers. It's also home to amazingly preserved clues from the past, including rock wall drawings and mass graves created during Pinochet's brutal reign.
Nostalgia for the Light is hardly epic in length, but the film's deliberate pace makes it feel much more substantial. Almost 15 minutes go by before the first interview takes place; before that, the Atacama region is shown in detail while Guzmán lays the narrative groundwork. This is an intensely personal film from start to finish, as his sincere love for astronomy and the somber tone of past recollections add a measure of extra weight. We're introduced not only to astronomers searching for clues up above, but relatives of the deceased searching below for the remains of their loved ones. Under Pinochet's rule, thousands of political prisoners were murdered and many of the bodies were moved to the desert to conceal evidence. In one particularly devastating scene, a middle-aged woman shares the remains of her brother: several fragments of skull, a foot. She's understandably bitter about her loss, yet seeing and holding physical remains seems to help her cope with it.
For obvious reasons, portions of the film dealing with Chile's troubled past are more instantly memorable than those dealing with astronomy, yet it's the ambiguously hopeful nature of both that keeps everything balanced. From profound explanations of cosmic light to one of Guzmán's closing statements ("I am convinced that memory has gravitational force"), the film's unique themes are tied together almost perfectly...yet enough room is left over for viewers to ponder their own thoughts, interpretations and beliefs. Appropriately enough, Guzmán's film often sidesteps the debate of religion vs. science: Nostalgia for the Light stands somewhere in the middle, floating high above the questions that keep most people awake at night. Simply put, it's a fantastic, original piece of documentary filmmaking.
Nostalgia for the Light is apparently the first Blu-Ray release from Icarus Films Home Video, and it's not a bad effort by any means. Boasting a solid technical presentation, the disc's somewhat high price tag is partially offset by more than three hours of total content. Overall, the total package may not be for all audiences, but open-minded documentary fans will get more than their money's worth.
Quality Control Department
Video & Audio Quality
Presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, this 1080i transfer does justice to Guzmán's visually-minded documentary. The unique landscape has no shortage of detail in every rock, crack and crevice, though a few interview segments appear to be filmed on lower-grade equipment. Digital problems are few and far-between; no edge enhancement was spotted, though aliasing can occasionally be seen along the way. Overall, it's an impressive visual presentation that fans should enjoy.
The packaging advertises a 5.1 mix, but Nostalgia for the Light is actually presented in a robust DTS-HD Stereo track. This Spanish dialogue-driven documentary could've benefited from a surround mix, but a surprising amount of LFE and crisp separation still create an impressive listening experience. Forced English subtitles are included during the film, but they're optional during the extras.
Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging
The Blu-Ray's static menu designs are clean and easy to navigate...and they load quite fast to boot. This 90-minute film has been divided into less than a dozen chapters, while the disc appears to be locked for Region "A" players only. The one-disc package is housed in a standard Blu-Ray keepcase and includes an promotional insert for two other Guzmán films only available on DVD (for now).
Five Short Films
by Guzmán round out the package. Chile: A Galaxy of Problems
(32 minutes) attempts to answer some of the issues the country faced in decades past. Oscar Saa: Technician of the Stars
(10 minutes) features a chat with an observatory engineer. José Maza: Sky Traveler
(13 minutes) shares the beliefs of an astronomer and professor, mostly in regard to celestial events. María Teresa and the Brown Dwarf
(12 minutes) looks at an interesting woman and her passion for astronomy, art and stone collecting. Finally, Astronomers From My Neighborhood
(14 minutes) chronicles the amazing achievements of Guillermo Fernández, who built an observatory in his spare time.
Interestingly enough, these Spanish-language short films play out like deleted or additional scenes more often than not, since they share many similar themes with the main feature. All are presented in 480p standard definition and include optional English subtitles, unlike the main feature itself.
Reverent and profound, Patricio Guzmán's Nostalgia for the Light blends the director's love for astronomy and personal history with sincere conviction. The unique landscape of Chile's Atacama Desert offers a perfect backdrop; not just because it's essential to both halves of the film, but it adds an emotional impact to the story as well. Icarus Fillms' Blu-Ray isn't much more expensive than the DVD release, but Guzmán's visually stunning film benefits greatly from the A/V upgrade. The bonus features are all worth watching as well. Overall, Nostalgia for the Light is a fairly-priced package that documentary fans should certainly enjoy, whether by themselves or in the company of others. Firmly Recommended.
NOTE: The above images were obtained from promotional outlets and do not represent this release's native resolution.
Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects, teaches art classes at a local gallery and runs a website or two in his spare time. He also enjoys slacking off, telling lame jokes and writing stuff in third person.