Patricio Guzmán’s 20th film is a meditative, metaphysical essay exploring the links between the water that surrounds the country of his birth, Chile, the nation’s recent history, and the wider universe. He actually begins this documentary on land, though, filming the same telescopes in the Atacama Desert – a place where there is no moisture at all – that featured so heavily in his previous work, 2010’s Nostalgia For The Light. Where that film was partly concerned with the burial of bodies within the desert during the Pinochet regime, The Pearl Button eventually ends up in similar territory, examining the collective fate of thousands of people who disappeared in the 1970s and were unceremoniously dropped in the Indian Ocean from helicopters with heavy pieces of railway track strapped to their bodies. The scope here is broader than that suggests, though, and for much of its running time Guzmán’s film looks beyond the relatively recent brutality of the Pinochet years, addressing the treatment and decline of Chile’s indigenous nomadic, seafaring peoples as well as ruminating on the existence of water on other planets. There are some arresting images along the way, such as a Chilean artist unfurling a giant, cardboard scale model of the country in a warehouse studio (that Guzmán subsequently films from above), a string of fascinating old photographs that were made for an ethnographic survey, and a number of abstract shots of a glacier that are accompanied by the sounds of water flowing and ice moving. The director’s approach is quite loose, and there’s a hint of free association at times, while he relies on collaborating academics and poets to help tie it all together. Near the end the object referenced by the film’s title becomes a key symbol that allows the filmmaker to connect the indigenous peoples’ loss of freedom with the incarceration and murder of those who opposed Pinochet’s government. Guzmán’s continuing struggle to understand human cruelty in Chile is both worthy and moving.
Directed by: Patricio Guzmán.
Written by: Patricio Guzmán.
Cinematography: Katell Dijan.
Editing: Patricio Guzmán, Emanuelle Joly.
Music: Hughes Maréchal, José Miguel Tobar, Miguel Miranda.
Running Time: 81 minutes.