Chile has 2670 miles of coastline, the largest archipelago in the world, volcanoes, glaciers and deserts. It was once the home of a seafaring indigenous population that lived off of the bounties of the sea. But, the country has gone through many upheavals, both natural and man-made, for hundreds of years and the water that once supplied the voice of the land needs to be heard again. Maestro documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzman brings us to that forbidding, beautiful land and the sky above it in “The Pearl Button.”
Patricio Guzman blew me away with his brilliant and beautiful “Nostalgia for the Light (2010)” which introduced me to the filmmaker’s artistic eye. That film examined the rise and fall of Chilean liberal reformist Salvador Allende, at the hands of the 1973 junta led by Augusto Pinochet, and the subsequent mass murders and disappearance of thousands of people. The heart of that film are the women who still search for proof of what happened to their husbands and sons, even after over four decades.
“The Pearl Button,” as I said, is about water. Not in the normal turn-on-the-tap sense, though, but in a way that is Spiritual, mystical and astronomic. Life on Earth, Guzman explains, is due to the stars where the first drops of the life-giving liquid came from billions of years ago. Guzman, with his incredible eye for film composition, uses his often achingly beautiful photography of people and landscapes to give us lessons, with water at the center, on Chilean geography, history and politics.
The film does not just fill one niche of interest like history. It satisfies on many levels, with the foremost being the flawless photography that, alone, should be a draw for many from documentary lovers to the art film buffs. I give it an A-.
Patricio Guzmán, whose latest is a companion piece to his extraordinary last film, "Nostalgia for the Light," is some kind of cosmic, philosophical, naturalist historian with a keen talent for expressing his deeply humanist, spiritual ideas in cinematic terms. He returns to Chile's Atacama Desert and its astronomical observatories, but this time, instead of sand, he focuses on water to once again explore his country's mass slaughters.
Chile has one of the longest coastlines in the world and Guzmán reflects on the waters that its indigenous people navigated fearlessly in canoes. Now they're mostly denied that right for safety reasons. He also reaches for the stars, considering water came to our planet from space, proposing that space might offer a future safe haven for those persecuted here.
In the first half of his film, he traces the history of the five indigenous groups that largely succumbed to disease and worse when Europeans discovered their land. He connects them to the more recent 'disappeared' of Chile's political history via the button of the title, Jimmy Button having lost his identity after the native was taken to England, returning as a man in between cultures. Of the 1,200 to 1,400 who were dropped into the ocean tied to steel rails during Chile's military dictatorship, all that remains of one is a button.
"The Pearl Button" doesn't quite live up to Guzmán's last, largely due to the sense that he is revisiting familiar territory and an abrupt segue between the two halves of the film. But this filmmaker's voice is distinct, his documentary artful and moving.
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