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Review: Nostalgia for the Light

The Atacama desert in Chile offers natural wonders — as well as horrors
By PETER KEOUGH  |  June 9, 2011
3.0 3.0 Stars

The driest place on earth is the Atacama desert in Chile. Ten thousand feet above sea level, it allows astronomers the clearest skies in the world for observing the universe; they gaze as far back as the Big Bang and the origins of the cosmos. It also offers ideal conditions for preserving bodies, a boon to archeologists studying the people who lived there thousands of years ago. In this poetic — though overstated — documentary, Patricio Guzmán ponders these two ways of looking back in time, merging the celestial and sublunary like Terrence Malick in The Tree of Life or Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams. But the more recent past also intrudes; Pinochet used this desert as a dumping ground for the remains of desaparecidos in the '70s. A pan down a cratered sphere reveals it to be not the moon, but a human skull. "The difference between them and us," says an astronomer about those who sift the sand for the remains of loved ones, "is that we can sleep at night."


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