Political Cinema: Patricio Guzman’s “The Battle of Chile” and “Nostalgia for the Light” Should Never Be Forgotten

The Battle of Chile Part 1-3 (1975-79)

We enter this movie as if awakening to a dream. The streets are loud with civil war, an interviewer asks the people what side they are on. Those with the opposition are nasty, the ones supporting the government cautious. There is talk of an election, and the percentage split between the Nationalist Party, the Christian Democrats, and Popular Unity. It is 1973 in Santiago, and wasn’t Allende just elected 2 ½ years ago? What, then, is this election? The narrator tells us nothing, just leads us through the streets, and we have to listen closely before we figure out this is a congressional election, and if enough members of congress from the right and center gain seats, they will impeach the president.

This midterm election finds the polarization of the Chilean people intensified. The hope of the workers and the peasants is met with the hatred and scorn of the bosses and the owners. But who is really destroying the country? Allende and his Popular Unity party or the right –wing fascists who undermine it by instigating strikes in the mining and trucking industries, crippling the economy and then blaming it on Allende’s agenda. There is no escaping the fact that “The Battle of Chile” is leftist propaganda, especially when it gets into the cornball chant for a worker’s utopia right before the final curtain, but there are facts it would be stupid to ignore, most notably that it is not the socialists who are randomly murdering people the streets. It is the rogue military that, having accepted $45 million from the Pentagon over the last 2 ½ years, are keeping their part of the bargain that , should the Chilean government violate the constitution, the armed forces shall act with autonomy.

It is disconcerting to see fascists urge workers to strike, as labor is traditionally associated with socialism, not fascism. But this political mayhem makes about as much sense as a Pineapple upside-down cake. The opposition forces will do anything to oust Allende from power. Failing to win a majority in congress, they resort to force, instigating rioting in the streets and finally bombing the president’s house. Allende dies, Pinochet takes over the government, and the Chile Stadium is turned into a concentration camp where thousands of Allende’s supporters are murdered.

The first part of The Battle of Chile” ends with an Argentinian cameraman filming his own murder. The second part takes it from there through the events that culminate in the coup d’etat. Finally, the third part retells the history in a more linear way. This time around, we don’t feel like lost tourists who have got off the plane at the wrong time. trying to understand what is going on around us. This time, everything is spelled out, with emphasis given to the community programs, such as direct buying of food products in order to make food affordable to the poor, that were implemented during the 2 ½ years of Allende’s presidency. Since the main purpose of the film is propagandistic, everything the workers do is idealized and any opposition to them is seen as demonic interference. The transformation of a capitalist economy into a worker’s paradise is not an easy one, and most of the peasants do not have a clear enough understanding of the transport and distribution of goods to replace the trucking industry.

But the photographic eyewitness to “The Battle of Chile” does not lie, and Guzman’s film stands as one of the most important chronicles of political unrest as we have seen at the movies. Its portrait of a non-dictatorial leftist presidency, one subject to all the rules of parliamentary procedure, is historical proof that democracy is not the personal property of any given ideology.

Nostalgia for the Light (2010)

In Chile’s Atacama Desert, astronomers and archeologists look to the heavens and Earth for the origins and destinations of the human shell. Thousands murdered by the Pinochet regime rot in mass graves beneath the clay while loved ones search for their bones, the calcium of which was once tatters of distant stardust, having been morphing from one form of existence into another since the Big Bang. “I wish these telescopes could see into the Earth and show us where the dead bodies lie,” one desolate seeker muses. She has been searching for years and has vowed to continue until some remnant of her loved one’s corpse has found and identified. This desert, which could be mistaken for the surface of Mars, is the one place on Earth where there is zero humidity It is home to four of the five highest observatories in the world. From heights ranging between 15,750 and 18,500 feet, the stars don’t seem so illogically distant.

Patricio Guzman’s “Nostalgia for the Light” searches both the past and present for clues to man’s place in the universe. At the same time we look in wonder at the vastness of the universe, we stare down in horror at the bloody acts of mankind. Guzman, who has made several films on the military overthrow of Allende’s presidency, including the three part “The Battle of Chile,” departs from the rough candor of his earlier work to create a film of such generous magnificence that the audience runs the risk of being transfigured in its light. Its dual messages both condemn and console us who are capable of such monstrous acts yet seem to be living bits of celestial rock that have pelted themselves into the tender fabric of dirt.

The film opens with the scarred, dead face of the moon, suggesting that our blue planet may well look like this in the near future if we continue our destructive ways. That moon seems to look at us with sad eyes of warning, up there all alone with no atmosphere to shield itself against the clumsy banging of cosmic debris. When we look at the moon, we are already looking into the past. When we look into the telescope, we can see almost to the beginning of time. When we look in the desert, we may be seeing our own future. Guzman is traumatically obsessed with the history of his country, where the heroes of a revolution lie ignominiously beneath sheets of clay. He is nostalgic for the innocence that came before the revolution, but not so much so that he cannot also stand outside of history in the glow of a more fantastic history that spreads across the sky in the language of fire.


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