Berlinale Blog A sea of tragic memories

“El botón de nácar” by Patricio Guzmán
“El botón de nácar” by Patricio Guzmán | Photo (detail): © Berlinale

Most of the films shown at the Berlinale are fiction. But there is a rather unconventional and political side to the festival as well. In that light, we can understand why it makes perfect sense for a documentary like Patrizio Guzmán’s “The Pearl Button” (“El botón de nácar”) to be in the running for the Golden Bear.

In this film, Chilean director Patricio Guzmán delves into past atrocities in his country. He takes the viewer on a 90-minute tour from the colonial era to the dictatorship under Augusto Pinochet, from the extermination of the indigenous peoples of Patagonia to the brutal murder of political opponents in southern Chile. The sea plays an interesting dual role here: it is both the source of life and silent witness to horrible tragedies.

Sensational camera work

In telling the story, the film establishes some far-flung connections. Viewers are liable to have a hard time connecting up the dots. But it all comes full circle in an uncanny way: what ties the strands together in the end is a small object: a pearl button. The sensational cinematography and the director’s very slow deep-voiced narration also run like a golden thread through the film. In a calm, sober tone of voice, Guzmán recounts the tragic story of a beautiful country full of natural treasures whose soul is destroyed by human evil. Viewers are profoundly moved by the film, regardless of whether they’re Chilean or not.

Past atrocities

The main thrust of The Pearl Button is similar to that of Guzmán’s preceding documentary, Nostalgia for the Light (Nostalgia de la luz). At the press conference Guzmán deplored the fact that the atrocities of the past are not publicly discussed in Chile. So he finds it particularly important to stress that The Pearl Button received funding from the Chilean government – and was the first of his 14 films to do so.