Sunday, January 30, 2011

Backdrops of Tragedy

The Star’s Peter Howell concluded his review of Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light by saying it “may just be the most profound movie I have ever seen.” Which made me wonder…if you were a newspaper editor, and your senior writer, someone with huge exposure to cinema, truly thought the most profound film of his life might have just opened, wouldn’t you at least put that on page one of the entertainment section, rather than burying it somewhere inside? But you suspect Howell’s applying a pretty commoditized notion of profundity, much as you might remark that someone may just have the whitest teeth you’ve ever seen, a remark based entirely in the dazzle of the moment, which may or may not carry either objective validity or lasting impact.

Nostalgia for the Light

He bases the valuation in part on the assertion that Guzman “simply shows the truth,” a bizarre thing to say about an essay film plainly driven by a point of view and a conscious joining of dots. The dots relate to Chile’s Atacama desert, a location of unusually low humidity and therefore cherished both by astronomers (because of the clarity of the local atmosphere) and archaeologists (for its low erosion). During the Pinochet years, there was a concentration camp in the desert, and the bodies of many of those murdered (according to one source, at least 3,200 deaths and disappearances) were buried there; even more than thirty years on, a few women spend a large part of their time scouring the terrain, searching for the bones of vanished relatives.

The film is of course a tribute to the fortitude of these women and a memorial to those who were lost. It reaches higher though, extracting from the desert a generalized theory of existence: as it facilitates our views of stars dying and reborn, and the core matter of the universe arranging itself into new objects and configurations, it allows us a perspective articulated by the now-adult daughter of two of the missing, that nothing really comes to an end. An earlier interviewee has emphasized how the external present doesn’t exist, in the sense that everything we see is always separated from us by the duration of the light’s journey; even in the internal present of our consciousness, our thoughts always lie in the past by the length of time incurred in their transmission through the neurons. “Those who have no memory don’t live anywhere,” says Guzman, referring both to this helpless dependence on the past, and more broadly to the diminished weight of a life lived in ignorance of history, its crimes, and their continuing price.

Showing the Truth

The film is handsomely contemplative, its overall tone forged less by pain and atrocity than by the desert’s inherent tranquility, the glory of the cosmos, and Guzman’s memories of an unexceptionally happy childhood before the country’s descent into hell. It’s plainly an admirable piece of work, but I think it’s a considerable stretch to cite it as an advance in profundity. At the risk of seeming like a philosophical lowbrow, I find the observations about our lack of a present, for instance, unarguable, but also inconsequential as an input into how to live our lives. We must obviously respect the woman who finds comfort in astronomy, but again, little about her own form of rationalization and coping provides a mechanism that might be more generally applicable or instructive.

None of this amounts to “simply showing the truth” – the appeal to notions of rebirth and universal linkage is plainly a spiritual construction of some kind, even if not an explicitly theological or denominational one. And the suspicion arises at certain points that Guzman is prioritizing aesthetic facility (such as a shot of one of the lonely searchers, framed in silhouette against the night sky, and in particular with a kind of snow globe dazzle effect that occasionally cascades down the screen) over more strenuous considerations. Put simply, shouldn’t the most profound film ever made be, you know, just a bit more like heavy lifting?

London River

Coincidentally or not, Nostalgia for the Light opened at the Bell Lightbox on the same weekend as London River, also built around people missing in the wake of violence (the film started screening on SuperChannel more or less simultaneously, and is also already out on DVD). London River (directed by Rachid Bouchareb) is a fiction though, set against the 2005 transport bombings which killed fifty-two people. Brenda Blethyn plays a distraught mother, suddenly unable to reach her daughter, who comes to the city to find her; Sotigui Kouyate (a remarkably moving and dignified performer, who died not long after completing the film) is an African Muslim living in France, similarly searching for his son. Because the two kids were living together, the two parents soon cross paths, with Elisabeth’s initial hostility toward Ousmane evolving into sympathy and even affection.

As the plot summary probably conveys (and I didn’t even mention the rather cruel twist toward the end), the film is unlikely to strike even its greatest defenders as being particularly profound. It’s the hoariest of devices, of course, to use a complex and sprawling tragedy as backdrop for a representative human story, and Bouchareb appears to be knowingly embracing the conventions - for example, even given their common purpose, the two protagonists bump into each other with absurd frequency – perhaps viewing this as a device to humanize and demonstrate the common purpose beneath the new Europe’s multi-cultural surface.

But their story just doesn’t seem rich enough to support the project, and while there’s some interesting material around the edges – glimpses of the outreach community surrounding a modern-day mosque, the Caucasian police inspector who off-handedly identifies himself as a Muslim – this too often carries that same feeling of over-calculation. Blethyn does a good job of conveying the mother’s initial quasi-revulsion at what the world seems to be coming to, but then she softens too quickly, as people do in movies (and having her live in isolation on the island of Guernsey is perhaps an overly symbolically remote starting point).

As a consequence of all this, the bombings sit rather uncertainly in the background as a thing that happened, an atrocity of horrible cost, but one that doesn’t implicate our collective goodness nor anything about the way we’re headed, and out of which some deeper mutual tolerance can emerge (again, a common blueprint in dealing with wrenching events, and not just in cinema). Obviously, no dramatic film would ever meet Howell’s benchmark of simply showing the truth, but what London River shows us is so tangential that you might conclude it amounts to a lie.

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