Snaking sinuously down the western edge of South America, pinned between the towering Andes and the vast Pacific, Chile spans some 2,670 miles of coastline. The most dramatic stretch may be Patagonia, a sparsely occupied nether region were the continent shreds out into a shrinking string of islands, glacial outcroppings, and limpid blue icebergs. For Patricio Guzmán, the preeminent cataloguer of Chile’s turbulent political past, it’s also a fitting symbol for the fraught status of his country, a liminal place balanced between extreme contradictions. A paired companion piece to 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light, which drew its inspiration from the Atacama desert’s vast dry reaches and famously clear skies, The Pearl Button instead looks to the sea, finding in it a sometimes strained sense of symbolic portent.
The defining event in Chile’s modern history remains its 1973 political coup, by which army chief Augusto Pinochet, backed by the furor of upper-class citizens and tacit assistance from the United States government, violently unseated Salvador Allende’s popular socialist regime. Years of vicious reprisals, unjustified imprisonment, and clandestine murders followed, with the strongman brutally decimating his opposition and critics. As in much of his recent work, Guzmán is less concerned with the direct details of this injustice than the latter-day realities of those who’ve suffered it, a pall of sour resignation hanging over his mordant historical analysis. Expanding the scope to encompass national victimhood in all its forms, he tells two very different marine tales, of the original natives whose vibrant maritime lifestyle was decimated by the invading Spanish and the undisclosed Pinochet victims whose bodies were routinely discarded far out at sea.
Despite the defeated tone of these tales, a spotlight is placed on the power of persistence. The native people profiled here traveled further than any other New World migrants, their gradual passage from Asia halted only upon reaching the continent’s terminal point, where they lived austere lives amid the harsh terrain and unforgiving climate, paddling tiny rowboats in the choppy, frigid waters off Cape Horn. The relatives of the victims of Pinochet’s purges, like those shown scouring the desert for the remains of their loved ones in Nostalgia for the Light, refuse to give up or forget, focusing their energies on finding cracks in the official record. These are inspirational examples for Guzmán, who draws energy from such resistance, preserving the stories of those who struggle mightily to keep tradition and memory alive.
These twinned threads eventually combine to reveal a third offense, of modern Chile’s refusal to engage with the sins of its past or the potential of its natural gifts, spurning the practical methods of the original natives in favor of destructive mining projects, shortsighted economic policies, and desperate attempts to curry the favor of global powers. A tenuous parallel is drawn to Jemmy Button, the 19th-century Yaghan tribesman who was bought off with a pearl bauble, transported back to England, and forced into modernity via “civilized” clothing and elocution lessons. Marked by this kind of overwrought metaphor, the film ultimately feels like a repetitive addendum to Nostalgia for the Light, whose approach to historical examination it mostly mimics.
Forty years removed from the searing reportage of his Battle of Chile trilogy, Guzmán now works in a composed and more cerebral essay-like form, even if it still bears the traces of his old polemical style. This makes for great fiery rhetoric, but not the most balanced documentary analysis. Acutely effective at identifying issues, The Pearl Button remains too zealous about its topic to be analytical about them, ultimately settling for fuzzy nostalgia for the imagined simplicity of a purer, less complicated time.