Thinking Through Time in Patricio Guzmán’s "Nostalgia for the Light"

Gareth Evans

The future is the past in search of the present.The past is the future in search of the present.
- David Tringham

1. I first watched Chilean film-maker Patricio Guzmán’s remarkable meditation on cosmic time and political violence on a flawed promotional DVD with friends in Highgate, London. In the final third, it was only possible to view it in cycles of about forty-five seconds. Afterward, eyes smeared in tears, we looked at each other in silence. We were startled into silence. Later, around 2 a.m., I walked back to where I was living, in Hackney, perhaps two and a half hours away. I walked beneath a sky of stars that were impossible to see.

2. We are both storytellers. Lying on our backs, we look up at the night sky. This is where stories begin, under the aegis of that multitude of stars, which at night filch certitudes and sometimes return them as faith. Those who first invented and then named the constellations were storytellers. Tracing an imaginary line between a cluster of stars gave them an image and an identity. The stars threaded on that line were like events threaded on a narrative. Imagining the constellations did not of course change the stars, nor did it change the black emptiness that surrounds them. What it changed was the way people read the night sky.

- John Berger, from And Our Faces, My Heart, Brief as Photos

3. Cinema is, foundationally, the story of time’s relationship with space; and also of time’s relationships with versions of itself within that space. In Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán occupies these premises (proposal as architecture) so profoundly that what might, in other’s hands, have felt thematically distancing—atrocities committed by the Augusto Pinochet regime, stellar birth and death—becomes as intimate as the heat of the sun on a summer arm, as the gaze of a loved one on what she loves.

4. The problem of time is like the darkness of the sky. Every event is inscribed in its own time. Events may cluster and their time overlap, but the time in common between events does not extend as a law beyond the clustering.

A famine is a tragic cluster of events. To which the Great Plough is indifferent, existing as it does in another time.
- John Berger, from And Our Faces…

5. The success of any creative process lies in the strength and conviction of the dynamic established between form, content and intention. The work made occupies this triangulation. Guzmán’s life project has, by his living within the circumstances of the Chilean twentieth century, become a memory map: a topographic inquiry into the place of Chile and its deliberately destroyed peoples; from Salvador Allende and his government to the thousands of violated and vanished citizens, removed into the void of “disappearance” by the military dictatorship. Memory becomes the place where, for better or for worse, those lives continue to be lived.

6. In Nostalgia for the Light the place of this “living memory” is the Atacama Desert. Here, all the chronologies of Guzmán’s investigation co-exist: the astronomers studying universal origins in the clearest skies of the planet; perfectly preserved pre-Columbian mummies; the graveyards of nineteenth century miners; the ruins of the Pinochet prison; and the women of the disappeared, who, for decades, have scoured the desert debris for the traces of their lost husbands, brothers and sons… for what remains.

7. The film’s opening sequence in Guzmán’s childhood home—in the layered intensity of its being, reminding one of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Mirror—establishes all of this with the simplest of means. The camera studies the quiet harmony of a genuine dwelling place while the film maker himself narrates the opening stations in the journey towards the coming Fall. As he does so, the constellated dust motes in the bright and slanting air inform us of the galaxies. They are galaxies.

So it begins. Time is embodied in space, and thus becomes place; the place of stories that matter.

8. The old order of the sublime focused its attention on scale and awe, normally natural or artistic, and in generally equal measure on the darkness and the light. As we move further into the era of upheaval we have made for ourselves, much of this remains “true” to our perception, albeit that the creative expression has largely changed, registering the globalized and the post-industrial, even the post-natural.

However, given the constellation of crises we face, it could be argued that an entirely different, almost reversed conception of the sublime is needed; one that finds its meaning in our response to these phenomena. If this is correct, such a definition would need to be founded on empathy, as the bedrock of the means by which we can encounter others in the time and space of our troubles, and so begin, tentatively, collectively, to change them, and ourselves in the process.

9. You have been looking for your son for forty years, bent over the earth, the sun on your back for how many seasons. You have found his foot in a sock. You have found part of his forehead. Is this enough for you to mourn with, to leave him finally to the arms of the world? Is anything ever enough?

10. What reconciles me to my own death more than anything else is the image of a place: a place where your bones and mine are buried, thrown, uncovered, together. They are strewn there pell-mell. One of your ribs leans against my skull. A metacarpal of my left hand lies inside your pelvis. (Against my broken ribs your breast like a flower.) The hundred bones of our feet are scattered like gravel. It is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.
- John Berger, from And Our Faces…

Nostalgia for the Light is available on DVD (

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ENDS: 16 April 2012

Film stills from Nostalgia for the Light (2010) directed by Patricio Guzmán