The Pearl Button seeks to reveal Chile's suffering - but doesn't quite hold together

Patricio Guzmán's films have brought the story of his country to the world. Yet this latest film lacks the clarity so central to his previous offerings.

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The waterways of western Patagonia were home several hundred years ago to Chile’s first and only maritime people, who travelled between the archipelagos in boats with fires burning inside them. In The Pearl Button, the great Chilean documentary-maker Patricio Guzmán asks why the country severed its ties with the ocean in favour of narrower economic possibilities inland. In losing that intimacy with the water, he argues, Chile sacrificed a primal connection with the universe. It’s a compelling story, one that survives the dreaminess with which it is sometimes rendered here, but it is not altogether certain whether it belongs in the same film as the rest of the material, which reflects on atrocities carried out after the infamous coup d’état of 11 September 1973.

Water joins the two halves of the film. The ocean, which was the lifeblood of the maritime civilisation, became the final resting place for those tortured and killed by the Pinochet regime: up to 1,400 bodies were dumped at sea. The separate parts of the film show the different modes of oppression and violence faced by Chile’s indigenous peoples. The days of groups such as the Selk’nam and the Yaghan were numbered once the first white settlers arrived in the late 19th century. The Chilean government supported the colonists and soon “Indian-hunting” was a lucrative trade.

From here, it is a mighty leap to the events of the 1970s, and one that Guzmán never quite makes convincingly. Anyone who saw his last film, Nostalgia for the Light, will know that imaginative connections between apparently disparate ideas are not beyond him. In that picture, he likened the work of astronomers searching the cosmos to the efforts of relatives of the disappeared, who comb the Atacama Desert for the remains of their loved ones. (“I wish the tele­scopes that look into the sky could see into the Earth,” said one woman memorably.)

The comparison between these quests, one for celestial and the other for corporeal bodies, was persuasively made. And there was an important link – prisoners interned by Pinochet in a concentration camp studied the stars together to preserve their “inner freedom”. But the arrangement of the material in The Pearl Button feels more spurious and speculative.

Early on, we get a hint that Guzmán is trying to find resonances where none naturally exist, when he mentions, in his fuzzy, fragmentary narration, a schoolmate who was swept away by the sea while leaping from rock to rock. “He was my first disappeared person,” Guzmán says. But a boy lost to the sea is something very different from one murdered by a dictatorship. The impression, compounded by the central image of two buttons separated by more than a century, is that Guzmán is sewing stitches in the film’s fabric that refuse to hold.

In another scene, he announces that he has asked an artist friend to make a vast map of Chile – the coastline is so long that the maps at school divided the country into three sections. We see the artist dutifully creating a map that fills half the room, but though we return to close-ups of it during the section about bodies dumped at sea, the point remains obscure. This is what happens when a director tries to find the shape of a film as he is making it but fails.

Guzmán has been a vital figure in the struggle to bring his country’s suffering to the world, ever since his reportage-based 1970s trilogy, The Battle of Chile, which was shot secretly on stock sent to him by the director Chris Marker and then smuggled abroad. And his anger and compassion haven’t deserted him in the new film. You can feel those qualities in the scenes re-creating the murder of one of the Pinochet regime’s opponents, or in his interviews with descendants of the extinct tribes.

Only the clarity has gone. Even Guzmán’s narration suggests someone waking from a dream: “The law of thought is the same as the law of water: it is ready to adapt to anything . . .” It is perhaps not entirely his fault that many of his lines could be superimposed on to pictures of sunsets and waterfalls and posted on social media without losing much of their impact. 

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 and is Film Critic in Residence at Falmouth University.

This article appears in the 17 March 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Spring double issue