Beginning with The Battle of Chile in 1978, the epic documentary recounting the days of the 1973 coup, filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has served as the national memory, recording Chile’s troubled past with clear-eyed precision and honesty.
In his most recent film Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán has turned his lens on memory itself, creating what New York Times film critic Stephen Holden described as “a transfixing cinematic essay” and earning himself yet another shower of critical praise.
To coincide with the North American release of the film, New York’s prestigious Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) is screening a week-long retrospective of the Chilean director’s work from April 1-7.
The most recent film tells two parallel stories from the dry heights of the Atacama highlands in northern Chile. It looks simultaneously at the astronomers who explore the cosmos from the region’s state-of-the-art observatories and the families on the ground searching for the remains of their relatives – political prisoners under the Pinochet regime whose bodies, they believe, were left here and preserved by the total lack of moisture here in the driest place on earth.
Taking home the Best Documentary prize at the 2010 Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and the Prix Chalais at Cannes, awarded to films with interest in humanitarian and journalistic values, the film has “earned Guzmán some of the highest praise of his heralded career,” declared BAM in its press release on the retrospective.
With its release in the United States, the film has garnered glowing critical responses from some of the most influential media outlets in the country, including the A.V. Club, The Village Voice, and the New York Times.
Titled “Obstinate Memories: The Documentaries of Patricio Guzmán,” the BAM series spans the full 40 years of the Chilean documentarian’s career, screening the great Battle of Chile triptych in its entirety alongside five other documentaries, including Guzmán’s travelogues Robinson Crusoe Island and Madrid, the biographical Salvador Allende, and Nostalgia for the Light.
Stephen Holden finished his New York Times review by saying, “the film’s passionate insistence on remembrance lends it a moral as well as a metaphysical weight.”
Screening Guzmán’s oeuvre now, BAM draws implicit parallels between the history of Chile that Guzmán captures in his films, and the widespread political turmoil currently upending autocratic regimes throughout the Arab World.
The week-long retrospective – appropriately, a look back – serves, like Nostalgia for the Light itself, as an exercise in memory, recalling the great works of Guzmán’s extraordinary career, and (to use Holden’s words) demonstrating the moral and metaphysical weight they continue to have in the present.