Thursday, April 28, 2011

SFIFF54 Day 8: Nostalgia For The Light

The 54nd San Francisco International Film Festival is at its halfway mark, as it runs through May 5th. Each day during the festival I'll be posting a recommendation and capsule review of a film in the festival.

Nostalgia For The Light (CHILE/FRANCE/GERMANY: Patricio Guzmán, 2010)

playing: 6:15 this evening at the Pacific Film Archive, with no further screenings during the festival.
distribution: Thanks to Icarus Films, it's set to open May 13th at the Landmark Shattuck and Lumiere, and have a special screening May 25th at the Rafael Film Center with author Isabel Allende in attendance.

Ever since an interest in mythology begat a fascination with identifying constellations from the roof of my childhood home in Frisco's Richmond District, I've had a long-standing desire to travel to the Southern Hemisphere, so I can see for myself an unfamiliar set of night skies. Years ago while spending one of several summers as a camp counselor and astronomy instructor, I even considered an opportunity to go to Chile in particular, knowing its Atacama Desert's status as the driest spot in the world made it a particularly perfect place for celestial observation.

So of course I was drawn to watch the astronomy-themed Nostalgia For the Light, the newest documentary by Patricio Guzmán, one of a trio of Chile-born filmmakers (Alejandro Jodorowsky and Raúl Ruiz being the other two) who have become famous internationally; all three are best known for their films completed outside their home country (and in fact Jodorowsky has never made a film there). Nostalgia For the Light may change this for Guzmán, however. It was filmed almost entirely in and around the Atacama, where Guzmán shoots gorgeous footage of landscapes, skyscapes, and observatory interiors, and interviews some of the people working in the region. Primarily, these fall into two categories: astronomers, and individuals involved in uncovering the horrible human histories literally buried in the desert, particularly survivors of victims of the repressive, CIA-supported dictator Augusto Pinochet.

This may seem like an odd juxtaposition on paper, but Guzmán's editing and narration over the course of the picture truly unveils the poetic links between science and justice, between history and gravity, and between memory and the cosmos. Though Nostalgia For the Light comes across as more a richly imagistic philosophical contemplation than an activist doc, it ultimately indicts the present with almost an equal fervor as the past. With luck, the success of this film will help the people of Chile, and the rest of the world, better reckon with the tragedies hidden among the silent stones of this patch of brown on the globe. Guzmán will be in attendance at tonight's screening.

SFIFF54 Day 8
Another option: The Dish and the Spoon (USA: Alison Bagnall, 2011) Right after Nostalgia For the Light, the PFA is screening an American indie still fresh from its world premiere at SXSW in Austin. Sara Vizcarrondo interviewed director Bagnall on an episode of Look Of The Week, and definitely piqued my interest in this title.

Non-SFIFF-option for today: American Graffiti at the Rafael Film Center, as a benefit for Marin Charitable. It took me long enough, but when I finally saw the George Lucas film that least appealed to me as a youngster, I became a reborn George Lucas fan. If you've never seen it on the big screen, you've gotta do it sometime.


  1. Guzman commented during Q&A after the Kabuki screening, that despite his best efforts, and despite getting wide distribution in Europe and North America, no Chilean distributor, including no Chilean TV channel, is interested in buying or exhibiting this film.

  2. Thanks for the report, Mohit. A sad but not so surprising state of affairs. I hope it turns around.

  3. I like how you lead into this piece with personal memories from your childhood. Very similar to the structure of the documentary itself.

  4. I did see American Graffiti when it first opened. For me, the real star of the film was Walter Murch and the at that time amazing use of sound, especially the music shifting between conventional soundtrack or "sourced" from the various radios.

  5. Michael, I've been intentionally taking a variety of approaches to my daily festival articles. It didn't occur to me that using applying the autobiographical reflection approach to this one, actually was mirroring the film itself! Thanks for pointing it out.

    Peter, I agree that Murch's contribution to American Graffiti is a tremendous one. But I wouldn't give short shrift to the look of the film either.

    By the way I see from your blog that you've been enjoying the Naruse silents DVD set. Before the festival started, I was immersed in a project of watching and rewatching Shochiku films available on DVD, and really had a great time revisiting (and in the case of Street Without End visiting for the first time) these films.