'The Cordillera of Dreams' ('La Cordillere des songes'): Film Review | Cannes 2019

Courtesy of Cannes Film Festival
A deeply felt political documentary that's much less interesting than its predecessors.

Patricio Guzman completes a trilogy on his native Chile and the lasting aftershocks of Pinochet’s coup d’etat.

Acclaimed documaker Patricio Guzman, whose The Battle of Chile (1975-79) made him synonymous with political filmmaking in Latin America, entranced festival audiences with his exploration of the synchronicity between history, geography and the physical universe in the brilliant Nostalgia for the Light and continued in much the same vein in The Pearl Button. The trilogy reaches its end with The Cordillera of Dreams (La Cordillere des songes), which sadly falls short of expectations and makes a disappointing conclusion, if only in comparison to the other two films.

In and of itself, it is a mournfully intelligent, poetic documentary that once more seeks to link the vastness, grandeur and indifference of nature with the human horrors that Chileans have lived through. The search for meaning is so personal here (Guzman narrates most of the film in the first person) and so difficult that it is often heart-rending.

Guzman has lived in France since the 1973 coup and he returns to Chile with the eyes of a foreigner, barely recognizing his natal city of Santiago amid the new skyscrapers. Yet Samuel Lahu’s opening helicopter shot is magical: clouds parting to reveal the regular grids of a white city fenced on the east by a wall of huge snowy mountains, the Andes Cordillera.The director stresses how far away and unreal Chile seems to him today, and he yearns for the joyful world of his childhood. Perhaps this is not the effect he intended, but many viewers will identify their own lost hopes and longing for an antediluvian world of happiness in his account of the aftermath of a searing civil war. The realization that nothing will ever be the same again, that the brutal villains won through violence and forever altered the country’s economic structure, enlarging the gulf between rich and poor — these things apply to many countries. Rampant capitalism has, after all, become global and the warm family homes we grew up in have often fallen into ruin. In this sense, Guzman’s sad backwards glance will strike a universal chord.

Whereas his previous two films focused on the Atacama desert and the vast waterways along the Pacific coast, here he has a more monolithic symbol to tackle. Made more breath-taking by the grandeur of Miranda y Tobar’s soaring score, the mountains of the Andes Cordillera loom silently overhead. A man climbing a sheer rockface is a bug on the screen. The privately owned copper mines are hidden from view, nor are are there traces of Incan civilization as in Peru. They are, frankly, not a great symbol, although at one point Guzman hesitantly calls them “witnesses” to Chile’s bloody history. He might as well have called them indifferent bystanders.

Those who have ardently followed the first two films and their attempts to subliminally connect the immensity of the physical universe with the petty cruelty of human history will want more. The Cordillera of Dreams turns away from the great questions that were so tantalizingly posed earlier. Is there a meaning to be found in the cosmos, a reason the pearl button from the shirt of a political victim is found years later at the bottom of the ocean? Maybe the answer is no.

The trilogy is set in the unique situation of a Latin American country that has undergone a profound trauma, one from which it has never fully recovered. With more than 12,000 desaparecidos lost to the fury of the right-wing Pinochet dictatorship, drugged and dumped out of planes into the Pacific Ocean, or tortured to death in prisons, or amassed in the football stadium which just a few years earlier had seen Chile triumphantly win third place in the World Cup, Chile is not just another country that changed presidents or, as the conventional apology now goes, made a few mistakes, some abuses of power that went too far. What hurts the director the most is the normalcy hiding hypocrisy — or perhaps those who participated in the horrors really do believe they were acting for the country’s good. 

A large part of the doc celebrates the humbly heroic work of documentarist Pablo Salas who, unlike Guzman, chose to remain in Chile and film, film, film every moment of government repression and the people’s resistance. Salas, older now, is a wry, wiry man who has amassed an enormous collection of videotapes and hard disks over the past 40 years. Most of his footage was, and still is, taken on the streets at protest marches, where he filmed the police beating demonstrators, firing tear gas and water jets at them, shoving them into police vans for arrest. The scenes are familiar enough, but as Guzman notes, Salas' work is precious because it has made it “impossible to erase history” for future generations. This is ultimately the point of documentary filmmaking and of his own life’s work.

Production companies: Atacama Productions, Arte France Cinema, Sampek Productions, Market Chile
Director-screenwriter: Patricio Guzman
Producer: Renate Sachse
Co-producers: Olivier Pere, Eric Lagesse, Alexandra Galvis
Director of photography: Samuel Lahu
Editor: Emmanuelle Joly
Music: Miranda y Tobar
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)
World sales: Pyramide International

85 minutes