Each of the documentaries in Patricio Guzmán’s Chile trilogy (screening at the Harvard Film Archive Feb. 23-29) begin by first pondering an elemental feature of the country — the desert, the sea, and the mountains — and returning inevitably to its all-too-human, tragic history.
In 1973, Augusto Pinochet, backed by the CIA, overthrew the socialist popularly elected president, Salvador Allende, and for nearly two decades oversaw a reign of terror. Guzmán was himself arrested and detained with thousands of other political prisoners in a soccer stadium. He was one of the fortunate ones. He managed not only to flee the country but also to smuggle out the raw footage shot during the turmoil that would become his first trilogy, “The Battle of Chile” (1975-79).
Guzmán returns to his homeland in “Nostalgia for the Light” (2010; Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. and Feb. 29 at 9 p.m.), visiting one of its more spectacular geographic features, the Atacama Desert. It’s visible in a photo of Earth taken from outer space. As Guzmán describes it in his eloquent, poetic voice-over narration, it is a “brown patch that has absolutely no humidity.” The desert’s translucent atmosphere makes it ideal for viewing the cosmos, and many international observatories have been built there. In the blank terrain and under a burning blue sky they look like domed alien structures in a science fiction movie. And while the scientists set up in the desert, so did Pinochet, locating his largest concentration camp in an abandoned 19th-century mining camp. The wretched accommodations were still intact; all Pinochet had to do, notes Guzmán, was add barbed wire.
Like a somber fugue Guzmán intertwines the scientist’s search for the origins of the universe with instances of Chile’s failure to look at the truth about its history. Despite the testimony of those who survived the torture and killings, many of whom relate their experience with wrenching, almost unbearable intensity, the crimes of the past are willfully forgotten, and the perpetrators are unpunished.
Pinochet not only imprisoned the living in the Atacama, he also buried the dead there. Hundreds of “the disappeared ones,” secretly murdered by his regime, likely lie somewhere beneath the desert sands. Guzmán observes and speaks to some of the survivors of these victims, all women, as they roam the Atacama, digging here and there, searching for their loved ones. They have been doing this for almost 40 years. Like the astronomers probing the universe, their quest may be endless. But they will never stop and never forget.
In “The Pearl Button” (2015; Feb. 28 at 9 p.m. and Feb. 29 at 7 p.m.), the second film of the trilogy, Guzmán revisits the Atacama, but as prelude to his ruminations about the ocean and water in general. Though Chile has one of the world’s longest coastlines (2,600 miles), those who live there are not enamored of it. Nor is he. When a schoolboy friend was dragged off by a wave, he was never seen again. So Guzmán admires the sea, but also fears it.
On the other hand, he remembers staying at his relatives’ home in Tierra del Fuego, the maze of islands off the southernmost coast of Chile and listening to the comforting patter of rain on the roof. He notes that this territory was once the home of indigenous peoples, Neolithic nomads who canoed about the archipelago taking all they needed from the sea. They were one with nature and the universe. Then European colonists came and wiped them out with ingenious brutality.
From the beginning, Guzmán concludes, Chile’s history, like that of all colonial nations, is one of cruelty and impunity. Deceptively discursive, “The Pearl Button” arrives in the end at an artifact of Chile’s most recent eruption of inhumanity. The sea gives up its secrets, and the mystery of the ivory-colored button is revealed.
Guzmán rounds out the trilogy with “The Cordillera of Dreams” (2019; Feb. 23 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 28 at 7 p.m.), in which he ponders the sublimity of the mountain range of the title, the Andes chain that forms the backbone of the long, narrow, snakelike country. It is a magnificent backdrop to the city of Santiago, but residents today aren’t impressed. They’re distracted by the diversions of a consumer culture, checking their phones as they walk past a trompe-l'œil mural of the range on the wall of the subway. Guzmán remembers that as a young man in the early ’70s he also ignored the mountains, but for different reasons: He and others like him thought they were changing the world, an illusion lost when Pinochet took down the Allende government.
So now when he returns to his native city he feels like a stranger. He visits his old family home in Santiago, and it is boarded up and — as a slow aerial drone shot reveals — just a roofless, empty shell littered with debris. With so little connection to his homeland, Guzmán looks to the cordillera to reconnect with his country and his youth and asks others for their impressions and interpretations.
An ebullient, elderly sculptor who uses stone from a mountain quarry describes the cordillera as “the material of dreams.” A singer compares the mountains to a protecting mother who is always there. A writer points out how the image of the mountains is universal because it’s on the cover of a brand of matches long popular in Chile.
They all recall the day the coup struck like an eruption — it, too, occurred on a Sept. 11 — and Guzmán intercuts footage of a volcanic cloud mounting into the sky with their testimony. The sculptor remembers waking up one night with a machine gun under his chin. The singer, then a child, relates how soldiers burst into the family house searching for weapons. The writer has a vivid memory of the vibrations of tanks rolling outside his schoolhouse and the deafening roar of low-flying jets. Both the singer and writer asked their parents: What is happening? But they had no answers and were afraid.
Guzmán was one of those parents without answers who tried to hide his fear. He played with his two daughters to distract them until the soldiers came a few days later and took him away.
Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.