Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

“Those Who Don’t Remember Don’t Exist Anywhere:” Historical Redemption in Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Film

“Those Who Don’t Remember Don’t Exist Anywhere:” Historical Redemption in Patricio Guzmán’s Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

Article excerpt

Set in the heart of the Atacama Desert in Chile, Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz, Patricio Guzmán, 2010) follows two main narrative threads. On the one hand, the film portrays the search for answers of archeologists and astronomers that explore the nature of the universe. On the other hand, the documentary also focuses on a group of women whose family members were executed during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship. Years after the end of his regime, these women keep looking for the bones of their loved ones in the desert, where the authorities threw them to destroy the evidence of their executions.1 Additionally, Nostalgia for the Light develops secondary motifs that intermingle with the two main narratives. Personal anecdotes about the filmmaker's childhood, testimonials of survivors of the regime, and the portrayal of pre-Columbian art in the Atacama Desert interlace, resulting in a reflexive display of apparently unrelated events. The combination of the different narratives illustrates the contradictions of exploring the past: while science can apparently study the far distant past, Chilean society still has not reached a consensus to access the recent historical period of the dictatorship. However, the film establishes connections between these seemingly unconnected threads, such as the irony that both the scientists and the victims search for traces of the same matter: calcium. As a result of the combination of these narrative layers, the film takes a subjective and poetic approach to different moments of history.

Nostalgia for the Light explores the expressive potential of the tensions between corporeality and abstraction through film form. The film unfolds as a constant negotiation between opposites. It presents pairs of counterparts and brings them into mutual recognition, such as the stars and the bones, scientific research and personal storytelling, and history and memory. The repeated juxtaposition of ideas ultimately becomes the conductive thread. However, even though these might seem like conflicting categories, Nostalgia for the Light connects them through reconciliation, as inseparable codependent parts of the same whole. As a result, the documentary reflects about the specificities of Chile's recent past while simultaneously pondering universal concepts.

The film relies on the minimalist, anti-dramatic tradition of transcendental style to depict concrete geopolitical realities. Dominant discourses about spirituality and cinematic form argue for contemplative aesthetics based on austere formal choices. The phenomenologists Aměděe Ayfre and Henri Agel, André Bazin's disciples, started this minimalist, contemplative trend in the early 1960s. For them, film cannot be analyzed separate from the viewing experience because it depends on the complex personal predispositions of the spectator.2 Therefore, "in the aesthetic evocation of the transcendent, film demands the active participation of the spectator" to interpret the mysterious meanings beyond the surface.3 For Ayfre and Agel, contemplative film has the potential to evoke and capture the traces of the divine, but this divine is transcendent: it exists beyond the image, in the invisible, and film can only portray signs of its presence. At the same time in the United States, scholar Susan Sontag developed a similar model in her essay "Spiritual Style in the Films of Robert Bresson" (1964), in which she argues for the same austere "spiritual realism" of Ayfre and Agel. Sontag argued that Bresson's plots and acting method made his films spiritual because the confusing, inexpressive emotions of the characters suggested the mysterious and ambiguous nature of the "human action and the human heart."4

But Paul Schrader epitomized this anti-dramatic, introspective aesthetic paradigm with his book Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer. According to Schrader transcendental style describes a "representative filmic form which expresses the Transcendent. …

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