Nostalgia for the Light by Patricio Guzmán
This six minute opening to Patricio Guzmán’s absorbing 2010 documentary is rich with images, sound and metaphor contrasting both light and dark and the esoteric and the mundane to set up a journey into seemingly unrelated topics – astronomy and the lost victims of Pinochet’s reign of terror in Chile.
The clip starts with beautifully shot images of an old brass telescope as it turns slowly into place to study the stars. There is no explanation or voice over just the rich noise as the cogs turn and grind. As the doors of the observatory slide open the image is flooded with light. This is the first example of how the filmmaker uses transitions to enrich the visual storytelling. As the screen is flooded with light Guzmán uses a cross-fade to a black and white image of the moon. The metaphor of dark and light continues with a sequence of images of the moon backed by an orchestral sound track that suggests both grandeur and wonder.
The final shot in this moon sequence powerfully shows how aware Guzmán is of his subject matter. Guzman uses another transition shot from the black and white of the moonscape to an abstract black and white image that then transitions into the movement of ordinary curtains on a window. Guzmán has moved us from the grandeur and light of space to the mundane of human existence and from the grind of cogs and wheels to the rustling of leaves and chirping of birds.
For the first time in the clip, Guzmán uses voiceover as he introduces himself, his love of astronomy and sets the scene of a simple, innocent Chile in the days before Pinochet. The camera lingers on household objects as he recalls those innocent days. He then takes us outside to a beautifully structured shot of a tree just off the middle of centre in front of a building. Again dark and light is used here with the dark, possibly ominous, door to the right and to the left, a white window covered with black bars.
Another transition is used now that becomes a key image for the film. Specks of dust appear to blow into the street as a cross fade of star dust fills the screen and one melancholy note of an oboe or a horn sounds. Guzmán now uses a series of images of the universe observed through telescopes to touch on the period of socialism in Chile before Pinochet. This was a time that saw astronomers flock to the dry clear skies above the Atacama desert. Guzmán doesn’t show us people or observatories, only stars. The soundtrack now suggests the swirling of space as the star specks swirl and he describes how this brief moment of socialist and scientific glory was abruptly interrupted by Pinochet’s coup d’état in 1973. At this point the soundtrack shifts from the sounds of space to that of wind in an empty desert as he recalls how this time of turmoil swept away ‘democracy, dreams and science’. This is a great example of how sound can add another layer to film experience.
The clip finishes with images of ruin and desolation closing on an abandoned observatory. The camera pans upward to the closed roof of the observatory mirroring the opening scene of the clip as Guzman tells us “One by one, the secrets of the sky began to fall upon us, like translucent rain”. Having watched the film this poetic phrase has real power as Guzman draws a rich parallel between these astronomical discoveries and the pain for the women of Chile whose own searches for their lost relatives have drawn less rewards. This is a rich and resonant opening six minutes that sets up a powerful, evocative and political story.