‘The Pearl Button’: Berlin Review

El Boton de Nacar
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A bit too similar to Nostalgia for the Light to work the same magic

Master documentarist Patricio Guzman studies Chile's terrible history of genocide and political repression through its oceans and the voice of water

It’s hard to follow up on such a uniquely resonant film as Patricio Guzman’s Nostalgia for the Light, which broke into art house release in 2010 to mesmerize audiences with its awe-struck juxtaposition of the greatness of the cosmos and the smallness and cruelty of human beings toward their own kind. For many admirers, The Pearl Button (El Botón De Nácar) will seem too similar a film, one whose dazzlingly insights have already been made. In place of the archaeology of the Chilean desert, Guzman takes water as his motif this time round, opening up the possibility of other elements to come. It would be very much in the spirit of a director whose reputation rests on a monumental documentary trilogy of the Seventies, The Battle of Chile.

But new things are happening here that could refrain the niche success of the earlier film, and certainly audiences once bitten by Guzman's infectious intelligence will want to come back for more. In his clear-eyed vision of the universe, oceanographers and anthropologists corroborate the intuitions of poets and astrophysicists lurk behind Chile’s giant telescopes, rotating in synchrony in the Atacama desert like robotic sunflowers. Their sensors are trained on the far reaches of outer space, where a vaporous nebula has been found containing 120 million times the water in Earth’s oceans.

Now Chile is an exceedingly long country with 2,600 miles of coastline, dotted with magnificent volcanos and icy blue glaciers. One has to gasp as Katell Djian’s camera glides past a pristine natural landscape under the glow of the Arctic sun. This brings up the subject of the extermination of the indigenous people of Patagonia, Chile’s most ancient inhabitants. The Water People were nomads who paddled small canoes around the archipelago and lived in symbiosis with the ocean. The film brings the historical horror of their end to consciousness through photographer Paz Errazuriz’s penetrating black and white images from the 1990s:  lined faces and sparkling eyes; groups of dignified women; men painted head to toe in white stripes and dots. Apart from a handful of survivors (among those interviewed are their direct descendants Gabriela Paterito, Cristina Calderon and Martin G. Calderon who still speak the language), they were quickly decimated by European diseases and alcohol, Indios hunters and colonial law.  

Narrating the film in his reflective, measured voice, Guzman tells the story of Jemmy Button, a native of Tierra del Fuego who in 1830 was taken to England by a ship’s captain to be “civilized”. He agrees to come in exchange for a single mother-of-pearl button, hence his English name. The remarkable changes wrought abroad are reflected not just in his gentleman’s attire but on his face. But when the good captain takes him home, Jemmy is a lost man without an identity.

The last part of the film returns to the uber-theme in Nostalgia for the Light, the tragedy of the country’s “disappeared” – those who supported deposed president Salvador Allende, or who rankled the 16-year military regime in some way. The graphic description of their torture is extremely tough to hear; even more so Guzman’s reconstruction of how victims were given fatal injections, then bound to heavy iron rails and dropped from helicopters into the ocean, dead or alive. Only years later, when an occasional body washed ashore, did people begin to perceive the ocean as a mass grave for 12,000 to 14,000 desaparicedos. In a startling moment that pulls the various threads of the film together, a pearl button is found stuck to a barnacle-covered rail brought to the surface by ocean divers.

It is the director’s extraordinary intuition about the synchronicity of history, geography and the physical universe – a mysterious relationship that has nothing to do with cause and effect – that gives the film and its predecessor their undeniable power.  Watching them opens up mental windows, unknown vistas appear, subliminal connections are made. The native people’s belief that everything in the universe is alive and that water makes music and has a voice no longer seems so impossible.

Production companies: Atacama Productions in association with Valdivia Film, Mediapro, France 3 Cinema
Director, Screenwriter: Patricio Guzman
Producer: Renate Sachse
Executive producers: Adrien Oumhani, Veronica Rosselot
Director of photography: Katell Djian
Editor: Emmanuelle Joly
Music: José Miguel Miranda, José Miguel Tobar, Hugues Marechal
Sales: Pyramide International

No rating, 82 minutes