By Tara Judah

Patricio Guzmán has been literally digging up atrocities buried in Chilean history for decades. His films give a voice to some of the world’s most heinous, silenced crimes. The first time I saw La batalla de Chile (Part 1 1975, Part 2 1976, Part 3 1979), The Pinochet Case (2001), and Salvadore Allende (2004) I was horrified by the extent of the crimes and floored by how little I knew of them.

Later I saw Nostalgia for the Light (2010), and again Guzmán opened my eyes. For work that is socially and politically focused, Guzmán doesn’t always adhere to third cinema guerilla aesthetics. Much like Nostalgia for the Light – a mesmeric vision of the world and universe – The Pearl Button draws a large bow and talks about some of the most human (and inhuman) actions that have taken place in our history. In that same breath he examines the creation of the Earth. All this is beautiful, awesome, heartbreaking, and a brilliant craft for executing cinematic polemic.

Guzmán begins with a piece of quartz: 3000 years old with a drop of water, preserved, or maybe trapped, inside. Water, he will argue, consists of much more than the elements H20. Water is the Chilean border. It is also an ocean of lost souls: a mass cemetery without a headstone. Grief, for those left behind is as endless as the ocean. Guzmán puts it to us, “The dead must finish dying so the living can continue living.”

The estimate of how many people’s bodies were thrown into the sea is between 1200 and 1400. Exact numbers will never be known. Guzmán has a journalist assist him in reconstructing how those bodies would have been ‘packaged’ and dumped into the sea. The methodology is chilling for how completely it embodies dehumanization. Though the government’s hopes that “the sea would keep the secret of the crime” has, to some extent, proved true – the bodies ‘melted away’ into the vast expanse of the ocean – there is always some way to trace historical imperative, to give a voice to even the most well hidden truths.

The water and the creatures that live there have “engraved their messages”, telling us which rusted metal rail structures, embedded at the bottom of the ocean, were intended as weights to drown the truth forever. On one metal rail there is a pearl button. Along with another pearl button – the one famously used by English scientist and naval ‘explorer’ Robert FitzRoy to buy a man of the Indigenous Fuegian people (Jemmy Button) – Guzmán has two parallel stories to tell us about Chile’s troubled past.

As with Nostalgia for the Light, he looks at the great expanse of the universe, the galaxies inside of it, and the elements that make matter, plus that thing called human nature. The landscapes Guzmán shows us are incredible: Chile is a beautiful, bountiful place. He also shows us the people, carefully letting the camera linger on faces long enough for love, pain and sorrow to permeate. The experience is almost too much.

The film is full of poetry, but it is drenched in melancholy. The score is a beautiful string arrangement, but every time Guzmán shows the past it soars off the screen and into the auditorium, plucking at already bleeding hearts. His final question is if water has memory – what else is trapped inside the quartz? Like the Chilean landscape, and the universe, the quartz has a mesmeric, unnerving – almost terrifying – beauty. Inside it there are sublime truths. The path to pull them out is not impossible, but it is imperative.


Director: Patricio Guzmán
Country: France / Chile / Spain 2015, 82 min