At 2015’s Berlin International Film Festival, The Pearl Button, the latest film by Patricio Guzmán, was awarded the Silver Bear prize for Best Script. No doubt deserving of this honor, one of the most high profile of the Chilean director’s near-five-decade career, the jury’s recognition of a documentarian for achievement in screenwriting may appear to some as strange, even misplaced. The oddity might help highlight that Guzmán has, in film, found striking new ways of revisiting and indeed rewriting historical subject matter.
Chile’s Pinochet dictatorship—as contemporaneously chronicled in Guzmán’s exhaustive and episodic 1976 guerrilla film, The Battle of Chile—has remained the central subject of the director's work, though a topic approached and brought into close-up through an ever-abstracting lens since the regime’s official end in 1990. In time its traces fade, perhaps perniciously. Nonetheless, the weight of repressed memory and reverberation of its agonies go on silently felt by Chile's people, and Guzmán has been left to document something more intangible.
An oceanographer interviewed in The Pearl Button, an 82-minute-travelogue which takes together the waves of time and water, outlines the behavior of time's tide. He describes water for what it is: as (spoiler alert) a kind-of infinitude, a medium, a life-sustaining matrix with vast and varying degrees of solidity, a fluidity or patternlessness that may take form, shape up or sublimate into natural geometry. History might similarly lack a container—and the likeness between the two is explicitly suggested, tethered and tied together in this metaphor. The structural device employed by Guzmán is the double-plot: as in Shakespeare’s King Lear or Eliot’s Daniel Deronda, the double-plot here initiates dialogue between two disparate ideas, abstract or literal. The Pearl Button is essentially a non-linear somewhat-sequel to Guzmán’s previous feature Nostalgia for the Light (2010), which—though it shares a common aesthetic: a double-plotted narrative—instead and inversely explores the absolute absence of water in the arid and barren telescope ruins of the Atacama desert, a site holding both the buried bones of the past and our only observatorial glimpse toward the future.
The fiction writer may be thought analogous to the magician and the detective—they work in invention, always between imagination and improvisation. The nonfiction writer (or those as good as Guzmán), then, could be considered both archaeologist and astronomer. It is in this precise position, a horizon-line between opaque layers of earth and transparent skies, where Nostalgia for the Light dives below and voyages above, balancing and tempering historical and scientific plots in tandem. Twinning Synoptic tragedies, Guzmán’s juxtapositioning puts him in a tradition of comparatists and ethnographers—like Plutarch chronicling Roman and Greek figures in Parallel Lives, or Levi-Strauss examining kinship structures in Tristes Tropiques—who create whole narratives that prove greater than the sum of their plots.
Nostalgia for the Light begins in an Atacama desert, and being without water, the locality cannot sustain life. Instead, in observatories, its astronomers look through this clear translucent sky to celestial bodies in the very outer reaches of the universe. Light years removed, they receive far-off images projected from the most distant past, and ponder astrophysical phenomena, our origins out there, above, beyond the light. Beneath the ground they walk on, the desert’s scarce surface-level detritus, exists the Chileans’ recent history. Here, interred in the Atacama, is what remains of Chacabuco, the biggest concentration camp of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship: preserved teeth, scraps of skull, parts of parts, everything made brilliant white by the gradual calcination of the sun. The stargazers who squint skywards are bound to this mass grave. By day, the film’s archaeologists—wives and sisters left behind by men they have lost—sweep the desert in search any remnant of a loved one. Accounts of the atrocities are delivered, it is resolved that we “cannot forget our dead.” Guzmán's double-plot, correlating echoes between two types of restless explorer, recalls Matthew Arnold: “Everywhere there is connection. Everywhere there is illustration. No single event, no single literature is adequately comprehended except in relation to other events, to other literatures.”
If significance is often arrived at through comparison, what each of these plots amounts to separately is less significant than where they might meet and end. One beat in Nostalgia for the Light touches on the heredity of the mineral calcium, passed down in the immediate time after the Big Bang and still present here and now in we, the living, and as remains of our dead. Guzmán’s extended comparison between the archeologist and astronomer’s two complementary vantages of time and history enables us to perceive some crucial similarities and differences, but the literal and the abstract are not held side-by-side to emphasize a congruence—instead, they are each extrapolated separately to demonstrate continuity. In lieu of a miniature, a sample that would point beyond its limits toward the universal, Guzmán points to the universe. Instead of microcosm and cosmos, Guzman stresses everything's inherent interconnectedness. Metaphors, then, mapping one set of terms onto another, their arrows pointing to and fro, involve both an expansion and a contraction, and the result of Guzmán’s argument of similitude and transformative maps-to-the-stars treatment of his subject matter is stupefying: uncannily, it makes the world feel smaller, and our place in it seem bigger.
Guzmán’s full-fathom-five revisiting of Pinochet’s legacy once more in the seafaring Pearl Button certainly suggests there are seemingly infinite angles and approaches to the subject. The repeated use of Nostalgia for the Light’s comparative device—a double-plot's dialogue—reveals that when the subject's scale and multiplicity threatens and tends to infinitude, where never the twain shall meet, some careful intervention, an organization of specks and fragments, is needed. Guzmán’s art, a metaphorical model of explanation, or socio-aesthetic, which shuffles abstract and literal, strives to mediate some of Chile’s trauma. When no other artistic means might otherwise reconcile or relate, the film’s holistic stitching and threading of stars into text achieves unity. With Nostalgia for the Light, and now The Pearl Button, Guzmán's art and poetics are contrary to his earlier more traditional documentary—they recall postcolonial poet Derek Walcott: “there is the buried language and there is the individual vocabulary… and the process of poetry is one of excavation and of self-discovery.” Guzmán finds new methods of excavation and new ways in which to combine found materials, the manifest metaphor—the dialogue within and between in his films—ultimately exemplifying that when correlations are causations, in time's current and Guzman's body of work, nothing ever really ends.