Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Notes on a masterpiece called El Botón de Nacár (The pearl Button) by Patricio Guzman, Chile/Spain/France: 2015-Berlinale V.-Competition)

For Terrence Malick

At first I have discovered the films by Guzman and Malick independent from each other. Guzman is as well the chronicler of this short-lived but probably one of the most important movement for social justice in the history, the Undidad Popular Movement in Chile. His La Batalle de Chile is one of the exemplary political documentaries in the history of cinema and like Malick, also Guzman was in his late Thirties already a living legend of cinema. When Guzman connects later his personal history, the history of his country (he had to leave for a long time) and the history of the universe in his wonderful Nostalgia De La Luz, he created something like the documentary pendant to Malick´s The Tree of Life. I have to admit again that it was this groundbreaking essay “Great Events and Ordinary People” on The Tree of Life, published on the Fipresci website which inspired me to have a different look on these two filmmaker.

Quite  an irony – a Berlin film critic called Guzman´s El Botón de Nacár “esoteric”, one of my most hated terms when it comes to critic´s reactions on films by Terrence Malick. First of all, the last films by Guzman and Malick are love letters to the matter we are all made of. As poetic as it sounds it is since a long time an undoubted fact that we are made of stardust.
El Botón de Nacár is among so much a film about water, as a source of life but also as a source of what we call civilization. Water is everywhere, even in far distant galaxies or in comets which pass by our planet. But this film offers also an ethnographic look on a native tribe from Patagonia which had once – and ages before the invention of any optical devices – a profound knowledge and understanding of the universe they saw reflected in water. Those were astronomers from a far distant past where a telescope was not even dreamt of but as well about people with an understanding of cinema long before a photo camera was even dream of.

If Nostalgia De La Luz looks like the documentary pendant to Malick´s The Tree of Life than El Botón de Nacár could be seen partly as a non-fiction pendant to The New World. Guzman looks at the traces of these disappeared Natives with boundless admiration. These natives were also famous for their body paintings only recorded on old drawings and photographs which also reflected their astonishing understanding of the universe without no device but their eyes opposite to the devices Guzman as a filmmaker and the astronomers can benefit from today. It is the same look of admiration we have in The New World in this Ophüls-like dance between the perfect apparatus of cinema and the native girl Pocahontas – and here Malick´s and Lubezki´s look to a past of cinema long before the apparatus of cinema was even dreamt of.
The disappearance of the natives in El Botón de Nacár and the disappearance of the natives in The New World caused by economical and political motivated colonialism is for both filmmaker a tragedy because mankind deleted a big part of its own collective memory full of knowledge.
Martin Scorsese once mentioned that cinema is often a look into the past and it is often a look into the past to a world we have lost but where we still can learn from.

It is interesting and also daring that Guzman uses beside astronomic film footage, his own recorded images also animated footage. For some purists a tabu is broken, for me this is nothing less than the evidence that Guzman is both a chronicler and a poet.

We have in Berlin an impressive Holocaust-monument. As impossible it is to imagine the worst genocide in the history of mankind, these empty and silent stones give you at least an idea about the loss of millions of identities deleted from the collective memory like through a Black Hole, a metaphor Guzman will use later in his film when he reveals the victims of the Pinochet´s dictatorship which are tortured, killed and thrown into the ocean, bound on steel from demolished railways. After 40 years there only small traces of human remains left on this steel.
The artificial devices of cinema and astronomy is not necessary to see what is but to regain what we have lost or forgotten.

The water, the stars, the old photographs, the steel of demolished railways, the pearl button as the last witness of a murdered victim are images which are burnt into my memory. The look into the past of the universe, the past of the history of Chile or the past of disappeared natives is like a look at an infinite screen. El Botón De Nacár is a film often hard to bear. Moments of great beauty alternate with moments of horror and grieve.

I remember the third part of La Batalle de Chile which is also a look into the past. While part 2 ends with the decline of the Unidad Popular and with the suicide of Salvador Allende, the third part is a long elegy of loss. His most recent films Nostalgia De La Luz and El Botón de Nacár leave a very likely echo in me.
On this very Sunday during this Berlin Film festival I have seen these two unforgettable films by Terrence Malick and Patricio Guzman. Two days later when I write these lines on Guzman´s wise, beautiful and very sad masterpiece – I have the strong and rare feeling that I witnessed film history on this very day.

Rüdiger Tomczak

Sun, Febr 15, Haus der Berliner Festspiele, 10.00

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