Film Review: The Pearl Button
The Pearl Button
The Chilean director Patricio Guzman has spent his career chronicling the murders, tortures, and other injustices committed in his country in the wake of the 1973 US-backed coup that deposed Salvador Allende’s democratically elected government and replaced it with a military dictatorship. In recent years, however, he has wed his interest in political history with a fascination with the cosmos and the natural world—most notably in 2010’s Nostalgia for the Light, which drew a poetic comparison between astronomers searching for mankind’s past with Chilean women searching for the remnants of their persecuted loved ones.
In The Pearl Button, Guzman starts off with a mesmerizing reflection on Chile’s geography and its complicated relationship with the sea. (The country has a massive coastline, running from the middle of South America to the tip of Antarctica.) His vision sweeps across millennia: from the cosmological origins of water, to the Indigenous Yaghan peoples living in the Patagonia region of the country—who were wiped out as European settlers encroached on their land—to the thousands of political prisoners who were killed and then “disappeared” by being thrown from helicopters into the sea.
In Guzman’s vision, the “pearl button” of the title becomes a symbol of this complicated, tragic past: It was in exchange for such a button that one Jemmy Button, a young native man, was taken from his family back to London in the 1800s by English explorers; Guzman also finds another button as the only remnant of one of the many political prisoners disposed of in the Pacific. It’s a big historical leap, but the power of the filmmaking sells it: Indeed, the perfection of the pearl also evokes the perfection of the water droplets that Guzman shoots with such sensuousness and grace. This is a rapturous, unsettling movie about beauty, mystery, and unimaginable horror.