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Okay, we're going to go from one extreme to another: from cave to desert.

Our critic-at-large John Powers has a review of a new film set in Chile's harsh northern desert. It's called "Nostalgia for the Light," and it's directed by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman. He first won international attention in the late 1970s with his three-part epic, "The Battle of Chile," which has been called one of the greatest documentaries ever made. He's made numerous films on everything from liberation theology to explorers who trace the roots of Jules Verne novels.

John says "Nostalgia for the Light" grapples with the deepest mysteries of life.

JOHN POWERS: Perhaps the most famous line in late-20th-century literature comes from Milan Kundera: The struggle of man against power, he wrote, is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

One man who never stopped struggling is Patricio Guzman, the Chilean filmmaker who was imprisoned during the U.S.-backed coup that toppled Chile's elected president, Salvador Allende, and installed a military dictatorship that lasted the next 17 years. Guzman's documentaries have done as much as anything to keep alive the world's memory of what happened to his country that Sept. 11th, 1973.

Of course, it's been 38 years since the coup, and Guzman is now 70. Though he hasn't forgotten anything, he's moved beyond horrified anger. In fact, he's sure never made a more beautiful or profound movie than his new one, "Nostalgia for the Light," an exquisitely shot essay on ultimate things: time, space, memory and how creatures so small and frail as human beings find meaning in a gigantic cosmos.

"Nostalgia for the Light" focuses on the Atacama Desert, a 600-mile stretch of high plateau in northern Chile that is the driest place on earth. It never rains. Composed of salt, sand and lava, the place has the bleak, ravishing beauty of a distant and forbidding planet. But because it's so high, so dry and so far from big cities, its clear skies make it home to some of the world's great observatories. At night, the stars shine so brightly, they cast shadows.

Nothing grows in the Atacama Desert, but it does draw three kinds of people, all searching for the truth of the past. There are the astronomers who study light from outer space, which means that what they're seeing in their telescopes is always something that already happened, but is only now reaching Earth. There are the archaeologists, who study the rock paintings and beautifully preserved bodies of the pre-Columbian peoples who traveled across the landscape.

And finally, there are old women who wander this vast desert with tiny shovels, looking for the remains of their sons, daughters and husbands. You see, the dictatorship used this hostile environment to jail political prisoners - they housed them in a desolate 19th-century mining camp - and to dump the bodies of those it had murdered. These women seek the past with particular urgency -heroically, obsessively, almost crazily searching for what became of their loved ones.

In fact, they're after the truth behind the physical remains. But historical memory remains is an iffy business in Chile. In Santiago a few years ago, I got on the subway near the statue commemorating Salvador Allende, and I got out across from September 11th Avenue - a street commemorating the coup that ended in his death.

But the coup happened nearly 40 years ago. That's why Guzman went to the Atacama Desert to shoot under its millions of stars. He knew that this landscape puts any event - not least a coup in a small, isolated country - into cosmic perspective. In fact, it threatens to reduce anything human to just a speck in time and space - which is to say, this movie isn't only about Chile.

Guzman's movie got me to thinking about the historical traumas whose ripples still touch my own untraumatized life in Southern California - American slavery, the Armenian genocide, the Holocaust, the Vietnam War, the repression in Central America. For those who've survived such tragedies or live intimately with their aftershocks, the questions are tricky and painful. How do we remember and honor our victims without letting their suffering define us or imprison us, or make us fight the same battles over and over? How do we hold on to the past, yet let go?

I don't know the answer to such questions, but I do know that there's no single correct one. Watching "Nostalgia for the Light," I suddenly remembered visiting the memorial to the Jewish heroes who fought the Nazis in the Warsaw Ghetto. I was surrounded by an Israeli school group, whose teachers, moved to tears by what struck them as sacred ground, were aghast to see their students giggling, horsing around and flirting - in short, being teenagers. And though my brain sympathized with the adults who honored the memory of those blood-stained cobblestones, my body was on the side of the kids, who were living, breathing, exuberant proof that life goes on.

GROSS: John Powers is film critic for Vogue and Vogue.com. He reviewed "Nostalgia for the Light" by Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman.

Coming up, a recording by saxophonist Tim Berne that was lost and now, 14 years later, has been released.

Jazz critic Ken Whitehead will have a review after a break.

This is FRESH AIR.

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