The Pearl Button
Directed by Patricio Guzmán
The ocean contains the history of all humanity. The sea holds all the voices of the earth and those that come from outer space. Water receives impetus from the stars and transmits it to living creatures. Water, the longest border in Chile, also holds the secret of two mysterious buttons which were found on its ocean floor. Chile, with its 2,670 miles of coastline and the largest archipelago in the world, presents a supernatural landscape. In it are volcanoes, mountains and glaciers. In it are the voices of the Patagonian Indigenous people, the first English sailors and also those of its political prisoners. Some say that water has memory. This film shows that it also has a voice.
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★★★★★ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
What sort of film starts off by informing you that an invasive chemical compound from space has now absorbed the overwhelming majority of our planet? The most paranoid post-apocalyptic sci-fi B-movie imaginable, I'd have said, before I saw Patricio Guzmán's mind-altering new documentary. Guzmán believes the chemical has already taken Earth, and it will only claim more of our land in the future. It's water, which he suggests may have reached Earth by comet. This is an incredible enough idea, but it's just the beginning of an extraordinary transportation of the audience through space, time, matter, memory, humanity, history and art - all in 82 minutes.
Early life, so much less xenophobic than its descendants, collaborated with the alien. By the time humans came about, the alien had mapped out areas where it was possible for life to exist. Guzmán reflects on the shape of his country, Chile, one long frontier at the edge of the water, and his imagery of the sea ranges from a dreamy deep blue to a storm-tossed sea dark and fraught enough to resemble some kind of volcanic rock that's learned how to move.
In one of the movie's many shrewdly drawn ironies, Guzmán notes that his interstellar speculations on the origin of water have been enabled by one of the few places on Earth the invader couldn't reach. It's the Atacama desert, the location of his last film Nostalgia for the Light, whose super-dry air makes the perfect conditions to observe the night sky. Its banks of radio telescopes have confirmed the existence of water on planet after planet, but it took the European-descended Chileans a long time to catch up to their ancestors in terms of looking to the heavens. Archive photographs of indigenous Chilean tribes show them painted with patterns that cannot be anything other than stars.
Guzmán interviews modern-day indigenous Chileans, who still keep the language of their ancestors. It's always dangerous to idealise tribal lives, but the society revealed through their words - where art is venerated as a tool to shape the future, and there is no concept of god - sounds philosophically perfect to me. The title comes from the sad tale of a Yaghan tribesman who agreed to travel to England in exchange for one pearl button. To the English, the button was worthless, but the tribesman was sure something so beautiful and artistic must have divine purpose, and Guzmán and his cinematographer Katell Djian get in so close to its ghostly colours that you can readily understand why he thought this.
To a Yaghan tribesman of the nineteenth century, a trip to England was a trip across time as well as the sea. Guzmán seems to have a similarly elevated perspective, knotting together stories from across time with the dexterity of an Alan Moore or a Chris Marker. Eventually he comes to his constant subject, the Pinochet atrocities, and though his anger burns as brightly as usual the extraordinary beauty and cosmic perspective of the film makes it land differently. Without disrespecting the atrocities he has spent decades chronicling, Guzmán dwarfs them against the origins of life on Earth, the birth of art, the moons rising on an alien planet, and all the other astonishing sights his film packs in.
The Pearl Button makes plenty of literal connections with Pinochet, and one vital metaphorical one. Though Pinochet was a native Chilean, Guzmán places him at the terminal point of a history of colonialism; whereas the Europeans took the land and lives of the people they met, Pinochet took their memory and identity too. A poet reflects on how even the most brutal tribes saw value in returning the bodies of those they killed, but Pinochet's troops failed to reach even this barrier of humanity. Many of his victims are known only from the rusted metal bars at the bottom of the sea that were used to weight their struggling bodies down.
Guzmán wonders in passing if water can remember these things, which made me think of the pseudoscientific idea of homeopathy - that a complete dilution can, somehow, make something even stronger. What an extraordinary idea, if homeopathy were true; the Chilean sea now embodies Pinochet's victims even more than their bodies did, a tide of guilt battering the country's long shoreline into submission. Guzmán performs a long tracking shot down a model of the Chilean coast, noting that when he went to school the maps divided the country into three in order to fit it all onto a sheet. But The Pearl Button makes it whole again, just as it reconciles land and sea, past and future, native and coloniser, humanity and space. Who else in documentary is working on this scale, this level of ambition and near-alchemical poetry? Only Patricio Guzmán. I think he might be an angel.
★★★★ review by Michael Scott on Letterboxd
The Pearl Button (El botón de nácar) is the first film I've seen of Chilean documentary film maker Patricio Guzmán. I didn't catch his much lauded Nostalgia for the Light though I hear both films share a common DNA. It would be hard not to, seeing as Guzmán's approach to visual and thematic association is so sprawling.
The sea, the desert, astronomy, Indigenous peoples, the Desaparecidos, a button made of mother of pearl, language, national identity, all get woven together in Guzmán's world view, threaded with poetry and philosophy and visual majesty. His ideas are expansive enough to be contained within a single piece of quartz and deep enough to drown a thousand souls.
Guzmán approaches documentary film making here as an exercise in slow focus. His ideas flow fast in streams of disconnected beauty. Like the shimmering patterns that dance across the ocean, they are abstractions, coupled with images that crave recognition through Guzmán's obtuse photography. The effect is as disorienting as it is bewitching. And when Guzmán has you under his hypnotic spell he begins to pull back. His ideas begin to connect in a kind of holistic philosophy that links the Pinochet regimes war crimes to the cultural obliteration of the Spanish settlers, to Chile's connection to (and fear of) the ocean and our place within the stars.
A stunning achievement in cinematic free verse.
★★★★ review by Wilson on Letterboxd
Film as meditative rural cinematic pyschogeography. A nominal documentary that explores Patricio Guzman's themes of memory and historical past, like the Chilean version of Patrick Modiano, but with beautiful ideas on the nature of water and how it sustains Chile.
A film of cultures and death, but with an otherworldly sense of the remarkable. Outer space, drifting rivers, grand frozen structures. The film may focus on persecuted groups, like the original Alacalufe and Yaghan tribes and return to Guzman's look at Pinochet, but this is not a depressing trawl through documentary and history, but rather it is an adventurous, non-narrative, film of ideas.
As someone who doesn't really like documentaries, I would almost certainly prefer to read a book on whatever subject is being discussed, The Pearl Button, like Nostalgia for Light before it, are wonderful, idiosyncratic films, that deserve attention.
★★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
It is probably Oppenheimer's diverse approach in retelling Indonesia's bloody history that has helped garner so much praise. Chilean director Patricio Guzman may lack that uniqueness at times but his work has remained powerfully poetic throughout a career charting the history of his homeland. His latest follows on from the insightful Nostalgia For The Light, which balanced Chile's explorative forays into deep space in the worlds driest desert, while sharing the same terrain that holds the remains of Pinochet's brutal past.
Here he explores Patagonia's rich history with the sea, how the indigenous people of Chile were once integrated as one with the culture of the ocean. It is a meditative and powerful reflection on how only twenty direct descendants are now alive from these tribes, an ethereal journey that encompasses the seeds of a nation that ripple out into the universe. Jemmy 'Button' right through to Pinochet's deep water burials chart a dark history on the country's borders. Guzman's films certainly deserve more attention than they receive outside of the documentary circuit and if you get the chance to catch this 80 minute wonder, it is highly recommended.
★★★½ review by Ben Albertyn on Letterboxd
Patricio Guzman is one of my favourite documentarians. He is an old-school kind of special and seems to keep avoiding most of the many issues I have with contemporary documentary filmmaking. While The Pearl Button isnt as tightly wound as his previous epic, Nostalgia for the Light, it is almost just as profound and beautiful. The constant here is Water, as apposed to Nostalgia's central theme of Time, so I guess it is understandable that this didnt turn out as compact and complex as his previous gem. The Pearl Button is (suitably) more fluid and loose, which works for and against it at times. What I love about Guzman is how he mythologises his subjects, instead of purporting his them as a truth. He tells stories of his subjects instead of putting them forth as non-fiction. Amongst many other things, The Pearl Button acts as possibly the first really valid argument against western civilisation and our survivalist system I've heard. It also has some of the most gorgeous moments of aesthetic cohesion I'm sure we will see all year. Worth seeking out!
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