Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán has built his reputation on the strength of a number of political documentaries about his native Chile. Two manifest cases in point are his tripartite masterpiece, The Battle of Chile (1975-79) and Salvador Allende (2004), both of which recount the fall of the Marxist Allende government and the rise of the Nixon-backed General Pinochet. With his latest feature, the warmly-received Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz), the director has once again revisited familiar terrain, but this time from a surprising new angle.

The documentary starts with a series of striking images of deep space, with the director’s voiceover recounting how various international scientists converged on Chile’s vast Atacama desert in the 1970s, seeing its combination of aridity and altitude as ideal for astronomical observation. From there, we see how progressive Chilean dreams of advancement were subsequently crushed by the political unrest and oppression that followed Allende’s assassination in ’73, and how many of the observatories were subsequent;y left to crumble in the wasteland. As Guzmán relates, the Atacama itself was later the site of many of Pinochet’s concentration camps and was also the dumping ground for the bodies of many of the ‘desaparecidos[‘ – the ‘disappeared’.

As the documentary progresses, the political themes of the director are gradually introduced. There are interviews with political-prisoners who spent years in the desert, fashioning home-made telescopes to remind themselves of their place in the universe, and an increasing focus on the widows and families of the victims of the Pinochet regime. These hardy, elderly women spend their days combing the desert for the remains of their loved ones – openly admitting that many of the bodies were thrown into the sea and may never be found. Their heart-rending, tragic and deeply moving testimonies are beautifully captured – the high point of the film. Yet these don’t always sit naturally alongside the broader ideas the film explores, and the transition from these interviews into discussions of astronomy isn’t always smooth.

The notion of linking a particular Chilean enthusiasm for astronomy – a conspicuous attempt to discover the origins of both the universe and thus human life – and the desire of the widows to have the recent historical past remembered is, of course, somewhat tenuous. So audacious is the attempt to link the twin themes that, at one point, astronomer Gaspar Galaz admits that the connection between stargazing and political memory had never occurred to him before, pondering that it is somewhat of a stretch, however seductive it may be. But in many ways, this idiosyncrasy and peculiarity is one of the film’s strengths; one is forced to think afresh about the big subjects (space, time, history and the nature of the universe!) the film addresses. Nonetheless, the director presents these grand themes in a more engaging and less oblique way than, say, its fictive counterpart The Tree of Life.

That said, the film could certainly have benefited from being more tightly structured; the narrative progression and introduction of ideas is never seamless. Another issue is that the scientific discussion is not as in-depth or as focused as it could have been; for example there is much time given over to an ultimately rather shallow explanation of how, given the speed of light and the distances involved in outer space, every time one looks into a telescope, one is effectively looking into the past. Another point necessary for the film’s narrative thrust, but with which Guzmán might reasonably have assumed his audience to be familiar, is that all the matter on earth is derived from the Big Bang.

The cinematography is universally excellent and the images of the Mars-like, surrealist landscape of the Atacama provoke a clever visual echo in the mind of the viewer. In addition to this, they, along with the string-heavy classical score, lend the documentary’s themes an instant grandeur and portentousness that feels fitting. In this persuasive manner, the director shows that the Atacama, with all its history and archaeological importance, can somehow be the key to understanding the origins of Chile and the Chilean people, just as space can be the key to mankind.

As expected, given the director’s filmography to date, Nostalgia for the Light is strongest when tackling the political themes, and particularly modern Chile’s willingness to forget both the colonial atrocities of the nineteenth century and the political atrocities of the second half of the twentieth century. Understandably, he is less at home with the finer points of advanced science, but ultimately that is not really what the film is about.

Despite not convincing entirely, intelligent filmmaking as ambitious as this should be applauded . Its beguiling mix of the universal and the particular, the private and the public, forces his audience to consider afresh the questions he raises, and ultimately to find the answers, if we want them, for ourselves.