Notes From the Margins…

Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button

  • March 30, 2016
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I’m feeling very fortunate indeed indeed to have just caught Chilean director Patricio Guzmán’s amazing movie The Pearl Button in its UK release.  I try and see as many films as I can every year, but Guzmán’s films are always something extra special.  For those who don’t know him, Guzmán is a documentary filmmaker who learned his craft at the Official School of Film in Spain – a school created by Franco to make Spain look good which ironically produced some of Spain’s greatest leftist directors such as Victor Erice, Juan Antonio Bardem and Pilar Miró.

Guzmán is also of the left.   He first became internationally known for his epic three-part account of the rise and fall of Salvador Allende and the Popular Unity movement The Battle of Chile.  Now 74 years old, Guzmán has not followed the tedious trajectory from youthful leftwing activism into conservative ‘realism’, but his passionate concern with social justice is now only one component of a wider and more reflective artistic vision that has transformed him into one of the few genuine poets working in contemporary cinema.

To call Guzmán a documentary film-maker doesn’t even begin to describe what he does. He fuses together images of astounding power and beauty with words, introspective voiceovers, philosophical reflections and meditations, political observations, and brilliantly realized interviews to create films that linger on in the mind long after you’ve seen them.

His last offering Nostalgia for the Light was a hauntingly beautiful meditation on astronomy, the cosmos, history, memory, and the tragedy of the Chilean disappeared, all centred on Chile’s awesome Atacama desert.   Memory is an essential theme in Guzmán’s work.  It emerges in his films as a kind of connective tissue that binds the past to the present, different generations to their predecessors, and individuals to their wider community and to the earth itself.

Like Milan Kundera in a different context, his films are a way of combating political ‘forgetting’ and the power of dictatorships like Pinchet’s to wipe out the memory of their opponents, and the crimes that were committed to eliminate them.   Guzmán is also fascinated by landscape, and by the beguiling and unusual geography of his native Chile in particular, but his landscapes are also haunted landscapes, saturated with Chile’s tragic recent history.

All of these concerns are present in the icy and watery landscapes of Patagonia,  which provide the central stage and object of inquiry  The Pearl Button.  The film is partly a celebration of water – in rivers, seas, and ghostly Patagonia icescapes that echo nineteenth century visions of polar landscapes as the epitome of the sublime.  But Patagonia is also a landscape of genocide, colonial oppression and political murder.

Guzmán interviews surviving members of the indigenous Indian population that was wiped or suppressed during the expansion of Chile’s colonial frontier in the nineteenth century, and the military campaigns that made it possible.  He movingly celebrates the way of life that was lost by their incorporation into ‘civilization’, and their close relationship with the sea and the rivers that dissect Patagonia, which led some of them to undertake thousand mile journeys or round Cape Horn in wicker canoes.

A key thread in the film is the relationship between human beings and  landscape, and also the interaction between water and landscape and the physical transformations that result from it.  Some of the images in the film, such as an amazing sequence of a groaning, creaking cathedral of ice are simply breathtaking – and their power is enhanced by the slow dreamy music and seamless editing, and by the poetic reflections and insights that Guzmán’s delivers in his solemn, velvety voice.

Patagonia is also the place where the Pinochet dictatorship – like its counterpart in Argentina –  dropped the bodies of its victims into the ocean, sometimes tying them to train rails to make them sink. Guzmán retraces this awful history, and goes in search of traces of the victims, like a detective revisiting a crime scene in a cold case.

He meticulously reconstructs how they were killed.  He finds traces of these crimes in barnacle formations on rails brought up from the ocean.   He mourns the victims and indicts their perpetrators.  Through the power of his images and the poetic sensibility that he brings to bear on the Patagonian landscape and its history, he also makes his audience mourn these unknown victims.

Guzmán’s unflinching depiction of these cruelties is not simply the result of his concern with Chilean politics.  Some of the most powerful interview contributions to the film come from the Chilean poet Raúl Zurita, a former prisoner of the Pinochet regime now suffering from Parkinsons, who says something to the effect that crimes such as the Chilean disappeared are crimes that the whole human family are responsible for, and which diminish all of us.

The same can be said of many of the horrific crimes that are currently taking place on a daily basis.   In this sense Guzmán’s Patagonia is a true mirror of what Gramsci called ‘this great and terrible world’, and despite the tragedies it describes,  it still manages to convince us that all is not lost, and that we remain part of a marvellous and magical planet that is still worth fighting for.


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1 Comment

  1. Paul Seligman

    2nd Apr 2016 - 4:34 pm

    There must be something wrong with me as this film didn’t really grab me. All right-thinking lefties (if that’s not a contradiction in terms) seem to think it is masterful. Having returned from Patagonia and the South Atlantic not long before I saw it, the scenery was good but not new to me, and I found parts of the film quite soporific. Certainly it references a long history of atrocities, which is a tale that’s important to tell and I don’t wish to disrespect the bravery of making such films in Chile. But the form did not work well for me.

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About Me

I’m a writer, campaigner and journalist.  My latest book is The Savage Frontier: The Pyrenees in History and the Imagination (New Press/Hurst, 2018).  The Infernal Machine is where I write on politics, history, cinema and other things that interest me.

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