Review by Bob Ignizio
In his documentary THE PEARL BUTTON, director Patricio Guzman intertwines astronomy, geology, history, and theology into a compellingly magical blend. As in his previous film NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, Guzman focuses on the Atacama desert in Chile and the array of radio telescopes installed there. He looks forward to his country’s future while also invoking its past in the form of a 3000-year-old piece of quartz that has a drop of water trapped inside it. And he examines the ways in which he and the rest of is current generation of countrymen have lost touch with the power of that water, something the five indigenous tribes of the Patagonia area of Chile knew very well.
This is not your typical documentary that feels like some dry classroom educational film with a budget, but rather a work of metaphysical poetry. At times Guzman’s approach is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s nature documentaries, but in a way that is almost antithetical. Where Herzog sees nature as cruel, savage, and uncaring, Guzman sees it in a far more optimistic light. In particular, here he bemoans the ways in which we have lost touch with the power and magic of water, which his narration at one point describes as, “an intermediary force between the stars and us.”
But make no mistake, Guzman is no Pollyanna. It’s just that he sees chaos and horror as being more the products of human nature than of nature itself, as exemplified by the sudden turn the film takes into relating how foreign settlers did their best to wipe out the native Chilean population once they arrived.
Eventually, taking its time to get there and in its own manner, the film gets around to explaining its title by relating the story of a native who was taken by a British explorer to visit England during the industrial revolution era. The native was bribed with a pearl button.
Inevitably, as in NOSTALGIA FOR THE LIGHT, the film finds its way to addressing the horrors of the Pinochet regime. Once again, water figures prominently. And there is also another pearl button.
It may be a bit more meandering and artistic than one is used to from documentaries, but one still walks away from THE PEARL BUTTON having learned a great deal. And all without ever feeling as though one is being lectured to. 4 out of 4 stars.