Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Thu Oct 29, 2015 6:13 am 
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Haunting us and warning us

The Pearl Button/El botón de nácar is another partly soothing, partly disquieting meditation on nature, Chilean history, and man's inhumanity to man from documentary filmmaker Patricio Guzmán. His 2011 Nostalgia for the Light was on my Best Documentary list for that year. It begins with desert, the sky, and moves on to los deaparacidos, the disappeared ones from the Pinochet dictatorship. In his Variety review at Berlin, where it debuted, Jay Weissberg found that this new documentary, whose starting point is water and the sea, is "muddied" by a "Natural Science 101 voiceover" and an inability to meld "two rather disparate subjects." These are the disappeared ones, again, particularly those dropped into the sea by helicopter, and, leading up to them, the indigenous peoples of Chile and Patagonia who were almost completely wiped out by the colonizers. Here we are introduced to the basic information about the five separate seagoing native peoples of Chile and their nearly lost languages, with interviews with a few of the handful of survivors.

However, we should note that while Weissberg has a point about the link between the disappeared ones and the aborigines being a bit vague, the earlier documentary made some broad leaps too. It is Guzmán's style to use broad, poetic musings laced with sonorous truisms about nature as the basis of further musings about human history. His soothing blend of poetic Spanish voiceover, lovely images of nature, and sound, creates a hypnotic mood that soothes us, and then he hits us with tales and images of man's innate cruelty. It works, each time. And despite Weissberg's justifiable reservations this time about two big topics that don't quite fit together in the same film, The Pearl Button won two prizes at Berlin, the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury and the Silver Bear for Best Script. Actually most critics have liked this new film.

What I will take away from The Pearl Button, besides the hypnotic voice and films of sea and snow, are the photographs of the astral images painted on the bodies of indigenous peoples of Chile, who believed that when they died the turned into stars; and the story of Jimmy Button, the native bought from his people for a handful of pearl buttons and taken to England to be turned into a "gentleman." Later he was returned to his native land. He let his hair grow out again and began speaking a mix of English and his native tongue. He could never merge back into his identity. This story of ancient peoples robbed of their culture and land, a few of them surviving like beached whales on an alien coast where they are strangers like Ishi, the last Yahi Indian in California memorably written about by Theodora Kroeber, is one that happens over and over as mankind looses touch with its roots.

The Pearl Button/El botón de nácar, 82 mins., which debuted at Berlin as mentioned, has shown at at least 18 other international festivals, including Toronto and Vancouver. It opened in the US 23 Oct. and France 28 Oct. Despite Wiessberg's valid criticisms of the new film compared to the old one and the general weaknesses of the poetic musings, critics have been pretty pleased. The AlloCiné press rating is an enthusiastic 4.2, and the Metacritic raging is 80%. Screened for this review (as "Le button de nacre") at MK2 Hautefeuille 29 Oct. 2015.

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