Thursday, September 9, 2010

Caretaker of a Nation's Memory: The Films of Patricio Guzmán

Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has been chronicling his country's turbulent history for close to four decades now. Ever since he captured the 1973 coup led by Augusto Pinochet against Marxist President Salvador Allende in his stunning trilogy The Battle of Chile, Guzmán has made himself the caretaker of his land's national memory. At this year's Toronto International Film Festival, his latest film Nostalgia for the Light takes Guzmán to Chile's Atacama Desert to follow a group of dedicated astronomers who look to the cosmos for the origins of life, while nearby, a group of women search for the body parts of loved ones who "disappeared" during the Pinochet regime. (The movie premieres at TIFF on Monday September 13th at the new Bell Lightbox, with two subsequent screenings later in the week. Check the schedule for times.)

While most of the critical attention at TIFF this year is on Werner Herzog's 3-D documentary Cave of Forgotten Dreams and Thai auteur Apichatpong Weerasethakul's Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (his previous film, Syndromes and a Century, lasted many lifetimes), Guzmán (like Jan Troell) continues to make superlative pictures but with scant attention paid to them. Having lived as an exile from his country for thirty years, I suppose he already understands what it means to be forgotten. For instance, the first (and only time) I saw The Battle of Chile was in a tattered print at a superb political film series in the mid-eighties programmed by Ellie Skrow at the Royal Ontario Mueseum. To this day, I still retain vivid memories of how Guzmán and his cameramen, by taking their lives into their hands, drew us into the process of how a country gets swallowed up by a military dictatorship. Although Guzmán's Marxist political analysis in The Battle of Chile was dogmatic and dry, the images he put on the screen were powerful glimpses of the torpor of war.

In 1997, Guzmán returned to his homeland to screen The Battle of Chile for young students while simultaneously searching for friends who survived the torture. He depicted all this in the documentary Chile, The Obstinate Memory. In El Caso Pinochet (The Pinochet Case), Guzmán meticulously put together a stinging indictment of the Chilean dictator, who was arrested in 1998 and extradited for trial to England on charges of torture and murder. Although El Caso Pincochet didn't have the accumulative force of his previous films, it is still a vividly personal and painful examination of the fallout from a nation's descent into a totalitarian state.

But I think Guzmán's best film is his 2004 Salvador Allende where he goes back to the beginning of the dream of a democratic socialist society in Chile -- and how it became an impossible dream. Guzmán interviews past supporters of Allende and the former American ambassador to Chile to trace the story of how a Marxist leader attempted to realize a utopian vision of communism with a human face. The power in Salvador Allende, though, comes from watching Allende's surviving supporters today still ruminating over how they could have stopped the coup. They have that gleam in their eyes like true believers firm in their belief in a workers' paradise. But the larger question that gives the movie its greatness is how Guzmán has to confront his own ideological paradox as a democratic Marxist. He faces the irrefutable fact that Allende could have only consolidated his power by becoming the kind of totaltitarian leader he deplored. The film makes clear that only in forming a police state could Allende have prevented his regime from being overtaken by the military. Guzmán's inability to resolve that riddle doesn't so much weaken his Marxist resolve as it lends his film an indelibly tragic tone. It's a terrific film.

-- Kevin Courrier is a writer/broadcaster, film critic, teacher and author. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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