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There is no escaping the past in the Atacama Desert in Chile, where rain in some areas comes every 400 years. There is no humidity. No insects or plant life. Human remains are mummified, frozen in time. And the air is so thin astronomers can reach back millions of years.

Here, our strongest telescopes turn wheeling galaxies into spectacular light shows that trivialize the fantasies of Lucas and Spielberg. Distant planets seem close as apples on a backyard tree.

Not far from the desert's gleaming white observatories, beautiful against blue sky, Chilean mothers till parched red soil with their arms and feet, looking for a reaching hand, a once useful leg – remains of a son or daughter who "disappeared" during Pinochet's regime.

Patricio Guzmán's documentary, Nostalgia for the Light, pays equal attention to the astronomers and searchers, regarding their quest as the same – a search for life.

The film is gorgeous, purposefully slow, almost a meditation. Guzmán tells us life in the Atacama Desert is an eternal book of memories. And he lingers on every page, capturing shots of constellations with the care of a master photographer. Imagine Ansel Adams, working in colour, let loose in the Milky Way.

At the same time, the filmmaker turns memories of desert victims into religious ceremony. An architect, one of 80,000 socialists imprisoned in the mid-1970s after General Augusto Pinochet led a coup d'état, tells how he paced the Chacabuco concentration camp, memorizing room sizes. Afterwards, alone in a cell, he translated the numbers into blueprints that might bear witness to the horror of Pinochet.

Another political prisoner remembers how he and friends would steal out at night, studying the sky with a makeshift telescope. How they felt drawn into heaven.

Just as astronomers' telescopes go beyond our galaxy, filmmaker Guzmán's gaze extends past the 20th century. Pinochet did not have to build Chacabuco. A hundred years earlier, workers were enslaved in desert camps and died mining salt that covered the soil like crusts of snow. The concentration camp where lawyers, doctors and writers were sent once housed Aymara and Mapuche Indians.

Although Nostalgia for the Light's field of vision is deep, it's also curiously narrow. Guzmán specializes in Chile's recent history. His most famous efforts are The Battle of Chile and Salvador Allende. And he presumes the audience for his new film has seen those works. No effort is made to explain Pinochet's overthrow of Allende's democratically elected government.

Still, what he has done here is amazing to look at and important to consider. Guzmán's message is simple: Vision is a gift that must be honoured with study and practice. He leaves us contemplating the words of a Chilean mother who continues to search for lost children. "I just wish the telescope didn't just look at the sky, but could also see through the earth so that we could find them."

Nostalgia for the Light begins a limited run Thursday at Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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