In 1973, the then-young Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzmán filmed a terrible series of events – the coup d’etat that toppled Salvador Allende, the elected president of Chile, and installed 16 years of terror under the dictator Augusto Pinochet. Guzmán escaped the country with his cans of film, got to Paris and assembled a remarkable documentary called The Battle of Chile.
In one way or another, the coup and its aftermath have been Guzmán’s subjects ever since. His latest documentary The Cordillera of Dreams continues his magnificent obsession.
And it is magnificent. The Cordillera of the title is the range of mountains beside Santiago, the capitol of Chile, the site of the coup along with the murder of Allende and the rounding up of Allende supporters. It’s also where Patricio Guzmán was born. Guzmán’s film studies the mountains. It contemplates their rough beauty, examines the rock formations, and moves in close to look at the varying colors and textures of the rocks, the cracks and fissures, the snow, and at different times of the year the trees and grasses.
The film interviews several people, mostly artists and mostly of Guzmán’s age – he’s nearing 79 – but the basic reference point in the film is the Cordillera, which is eons old and in the short run at least, unchanging. There’s a sculptor in the film who cuts huge blocks of stone out of the Cordillera for his work.
The artists look prosperous; Guzmán interviews them in neat spaces lined with books and artwork, but over and over he visits Pablo Salas, who sits in a chaotic space cluttered with film and video equipment, and what looks like thousands of film reels, VHS tapes and also hard drives. And set visually alongside the elegant Cordillera, this rumpled man, about 15 years younger than Patricio Guzmán, becomes the center of The Cordillera of Dreams.
Over and over, Guzmán’s films are about memory, about remembering what happened to Chile, about a dictatorship that rounded people up, imprisoned them, murdered them – and as the phrase goes “disappeared” thousands of human beings. And Pablo Salas has been filming what’s happened in Chile since about 1984. That pile of film and video is a record of daily life and street demonstrations. It’s a visual history of Chile for the last 35 years or so. For Guzmán, it’s the memory of a country still trying to hide what happened from 1973 to 1990.
Patricio Guzmán narrates The Cordillera of Dreams because it’s the story of his personal relationship to a country he loves but was forced to leave. He says he’s never before spoken of the loneliness he feels. He has a soft, rich voice, full of feeling and care
Above his voice are the images of the Cordillera, slow moving shots, sometimes of the high peaks or glaciers or snow-filled valleys. Toward the end of the film, Guzmán shows a climber on a vertical face, which serves as one metaphor for Guzmán’s uphill struggle to get the world – as well as young Chileans – to know the pain of what happened and how he believes Chile was turned from a country of hopes to a sterile place, with money the only touchstone of value.
Guzmán has an expansive philosophy. For him – and the movie makes you feel it – the coup that so unsettled Chile connects to the mountains and even the universe as a whole through the meteors that fall – what Guzmán calls “rocks that fall from the sky.” He sees the Cordillera as witness to all that has happened.
I don’t know of many films like The Cordillera of Dreams, other than Guzmán’s. Films simultaneously. full of sadness and extraordinary, profound beauty. What he says at the end is that his wish is that Chile recover its childhood and joy.