Gilbey on Film: In praise of Patricio Guzmán

The Chilean documentary maker comes to London.

Do you think Andrew Rosindell gets out to the cinema much? The Tory MP expressed recently his admiration for the former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, so he would possibly take away a different sort of experience than most of us from watching the films of Pablo Larrain (Tony Manero, Post Mortem and the forthcoming No), which address Pinochet’s rule from an imaginative variety of aghast perspectives. Most of all, I would like to see what a Pinochet apologist like Rosindell makes of Patricio Guzmán’s new film Nostalgia for the Light, a documentary essay which draws imaginative connections between the beginnings of the universe, advances in astronomy and the ongoing search for the bodies of those who were “disappeared” under Pinochet. I wouldn’t want to underestimate Rosindell’s ability to squirm and squelch his way out of a sticky spot, but I feel fairly confident that his admiration for the dictator would be challenged by this profound and quietly distressing film.

Until this week, I was unfamiliar with the work of Guzmán, a Chilean documentary maker who is celebrated in a season of films this month at London’s BFI Southbank. His key work is The Battle of Chile, a reportage-based trilogy made surreptitiously (the film stock was supplied secretly by Chris Marker) and smuggled out of the country in 1973 following the 11 September coup. Nostalgia for the Light, Guzmán’s latest picture, plays for two weeks within the season, and will be pitching up on the first day, 13 July, for a post-screening Q&A session.  

It’s a deceptively modest film which reveals only gradually its ambitious scope. “In the glow of the night,” says Guzmán in his narration, “the stars observe us.” That idea of a watchful presence in the universe is explored throughout the picture, and admirers of this director will not be surprised to discover that conscience, history and the act of remembering are afforded the omnipotence that a less secular film might have attributed to a deity. What starts as a product of his long-standing fascination with astronomy moves from the heavens to earth - deep into the earth, in fact - when the focus shifts to the relatives, mostly women, who continue to comb the Atacama desert looking for the remains of their loved ones. The Atacama is also a hunting-ground of astronomers and historians for reasons scientific or anthropological; Guzmán’s skill in bringing these interlinked motivations together is something to behold.

The imaginative leap between our quest for information about the universe and the hunt for answers in the dust and dirt, between celestial bodies and corporeal ones, is illuminating and elegantly made. There is the value of star-gazing as recalled by former prisoners of the desert’s Chacabuco concentration camp, some of whom created an astronomy club while incarcerated. The soldiers broke it up because they feared it would lead to escape. Their instincts were correct in one sense: an ex-prisoner talks of how the stars preserved his “inner freedom.” And the essence of looking at the stars - that is, admiring something which has already expired by the time it becomes visible to us - blurs into the search for the disappeared. Their bodies broken into shards and splinters, some remains still unsorted and unidentified in boxes which contain what Guzmán calls “the remains of remains”, they too transmit messages from the past which change how we regard the present, and our place in it.

There is no danger of the different quests in the film becoming directly equivalent, but it’s still helpful when one astronomer remarks on what separates his search for answers from the one carried out by the grieving women: “We can sleep peacefully,” he says. One woman, whose brother was killed, longs for the apparatus used by astronomers to be deployed for her own cause: “I wish the telescopes that look into the sky could see into the earth.”.

Nostalgia for the Light is a genuinely transformative piece of work, cinematically inventive and politically urgent. Once you’ve seen it, check out this  fascinating and through interview with Guzmán courtesy of Filmmaker magazine.

"Nostalgia for the Light" is released on 13 July. The Patricio Guzmán season runs at BFI Southbank from 13 to 28 July.

The beginning of Augusto Pinochet's coup in Chile, 11 September 1973 (Photo: Getty Images)

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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The Big Sick is well meaning, rather than groundbreaking

There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors, and some limits to Kumail Nanjiani’s range.

When real romances are adapted for the screen by those involved, the process usually occurs after the flame has gone out. Woody Allen and Diane Keaton were just good friends by the time they made Annie Hall; Julie Delpy and Adam Goldberg had broken up long before they played lovers in 2 Days in Paris. The Big Sick, however, is based on the relationship between its lead actor, Kumail Nanjiani, and his wife, Emily V Gordon (played by Zoe Kazan), who wrote the script together. Their story, a loose retelling of real events, shifts the emphasis away from whether or not their love survived (we know it did) and on to how it endured in the face of unusual odds – with Emily lying comatose in hospital when they had scarcely got to know one another.

The director, Michael Showalter, is not a man scared of spelling out the obvious (during an argument between Kumail and Emily, a road sign behind them reads “Speed bump ahead”) but even he draws the line at putting The Smiths’s “Girlfriend in a Coma” on the soundtrack.

Kumail is a Pakistani comic on the lower rungs of the Chicago stand-up circuit. His family is trying to marry him off to a nice Muslim woman but Kumail is more interested in Emily, a graduate student in psychotherapy who heckles him at a gig one night. His family, given to openly disdaining any relatives with white partners, isn’t aware of her existence, but it hasn’t watched, as we have, the cutesy montage of their courtship.

The couple finish most of their dates with a joke about never seeing one another again. When Emily becomes ill and is placed in a medically induced coma, this running gag becomes unexpectedly resonant, along with Kumail’s choice of date movie: The Abominable Dr Phibes, in which Vincent Price takes revenge on the doctors who let his wife die in surgery. In a piece of timing that adds an extra tartness, Kumail and Emily have broken up shortly before she falls ill. Strictly speaking, they aren’t even in a relationship when Kumail first encounters Emily’s mother, Beth (Holly Hunter), and father, Terry (Ray Romano), at the hospital. Meet the Parents coincides unexpectedly with While You Were Sleeping. Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner lurks in the background.

The estrangement might have been definitive were it not for the coma, though the film can’t quite bring itself to acknowledge the helpful part played in the couple’s relationship by a life-threatening medical emergency. In common with anything in which Judd Apatow has a hand (he gets a producing credit here), The Big Sick is in the business of reassurance. Emily mentions that she works with men convicted of domestic violence but the world of the film is one where harm is only ever inflicted inadvertently.

Discomfort surfaces in the two brief scenes that come closest to holding to account Nanjiani’s likeable, mildly neurotic persona. The tremendous Vella Lovell stands out as one of Kumail’s prospective brides, who upbraids him for his cowardice. And Emily rages at him over a perceived betrayal in a scene that would be more persuasive still if the pair seemed like actual lovers rather than just room-mates. There’s a chemistry shortfall between the actors as well as some limits to Nanjiani’s range, which extends from “genial” to “a bit cross”.

He also suffers from the problem, common to stand-ups who become actors, of not always knowing how to integrate material into characterisation. Seinfeld handled it well by showing Jerry getting caught out trying to sneak “bits” into casual conversation, but in The Big Sick the gags often sit on top of the action. The movie’s best joke is Kumail’s response when Terry, who has clearly never met a Muslim before, asks his opinion on 9/11. No man would ever say what he says to the parents of a woman he was hoping to win back, let alone whose life was hanging in the balance, and if we forgive him, it’s only because it’s an ingenious line. It is also one of the thousand or so reasons why The Big Sick is well meaning rather than groundbreaking, and why a Judd Apatow production will never be confused with a Preston Sturges one. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue