What is important about great films is not how they subordinate their parts to the whole, but how the very idea of wholeness remains fundamentally challenged by the parts it gathers into itself. This is the case with Nostalgia for the Light
Here is Guzmán describing the process
'In the desert you can only film in the morning and the evening. The sun is too powerful in the middle of the day. So at that time, when we couldn’t film in the desert, we chose to film little things—little details, tiny stones, rays of light, reflections, shadows, cracks between objects and their undersides. The resulting images of the substance of materiality look abstract, and it’s really quite impressive. We took masses of shots like that. We weren’t sure why, but that’s how the documentary developed. You look intuitively with film and you find the theme. Sometimes it’s successful, sometimes not. But that dust became fundamental. We found a big astronomical cupola from which the telescope had been removed. It was disused and actually full of rubbish. When I saw that space I actually saw the whole process of the coup d’état in the destruction and the absence of what was supposed to be there. I saw this dustbin place as a metaphor. It was thick with dust. There was lots of powdered glass and at one point we started throwing it in the air when the light that was entering the building was like the light you might see in a cathedral. When we did this it was like you could actually see the Milky Way there. We were captivated by this sight for a whole day. The director of the observatory said, “What on earth are you doing there? We’ve got the telescopes over here!” She was absolutely baffled! She had prepared this whole official visit and we spent the day throwing dust in the air. But that’s what you need to do with documentary cinema. It’s a path you have to discover and explore. You don’t know where it will lead, if anywhere, but the process is often very moving.' (White 2012)
Perfection is the fatal temptation of art. It is only the flaws in the perfection that make artworks great, that is, that makes them art in the first instance.
The dust particles in Nostalgia are unnecessary supplements. Guzmán describes his crew spending a day throwing dust in the air to get these shots, a day wasted on the only fictional shots in a documentary film. They are extraneous, and wrong, and it is because of them that Nostalgia is not merely an essay, an item in a genre of essay films as described so lucidly by Timothy Corrigan (2011).
In less than sixty years, cinema had found a strange attractor, a formula for making perfect films like Casablanca and Stagecoach. Every subsequent film that followed the formula thereby sacrificed any claim to either perfection or art. The pursuit of a new method for making films has therefore been pressing for more than 60 years. Guzmán has been working on this problem for more than 40 of them. He is an essayist only in the sense that he essays a new form with each project
Here the politics is all on the surface. The film has an absolutely clear message. The Chilean popular socialist government of Salvador Allende, the world's first democratically elected socialist government, was brutally suppressed by a US-backed military coup under General Pinochet in 1973. The film concerns the process of historical forgetting and how difficult it is to erase trauma, and equally to recall it.
Pinochet's murderous regime was the first great experiment in what has become the ongoing disaster of neo-liberalism. By concentrating on this unique and particular history, Guzmán points us to the meaning of an epoch. By pointing us to the pre-Colombian indigenous Chileans of the Atacama and to the immense silence of the sky, he points not to the universality of some putative human condition but to the uniqueness of this particularly unnecessary tragedy, the unfolding of an ineluctable chain of torture, murder, erasure, forgetting and remembrance that need never have occurred: that could have been stopped at any point, that could have been learned from at any point, but which was not and is not.
The dust particles of sand and bones are both cosmic and contingent, contingent and clumsily metaphorical, and precisely because that allegory is so brusque, it opens what would otherwise be the perfect rhymes of archaeology, cosmology and contemporary history to the hell of the random, of the stupidity of neo-colonialism, of killing as a vainglorious exercise of the semblance of power proper to the puppet army of a puppet dictator whose strings were pulled by the Washington consensus.
Dust to dust: the last and lasting act of the post-Pinochet political elite has been to deny the desparecidos their right to death. Their unstill ghosts refuse to allow Nostalgia the satisfaction of artistic wholeness, and it is for this reason that it stands among the greatest of films.
At the same time, because this formal flaw is also, paradoxically, the making of the film as an artwork, it achieves its flawed completion, containing in itself the contradiction that creates its own perpetuum mobile. As self-operating perpetual motion machine, it both opens to interpretation, and becomes a monad, entire unto itself. In turn it is also because it is a broken but autonomous whole that it has the agency that allows it to function in history as a refusal of history.
The remembered light of the past casts its shadow across the present in order to point the way toward the future.
Corrigan, Timothy (2011). The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
White, Rob (2012). 'After-effects: Interview with Patricio Guzmán'. Film Quarterly.