The Pearl Button Review

Image for The Pearl Button

Before contrasting a century-long act of colonial cleansing with the brutality of the Pinochet regime, documentarist Patricio Guzmán reflects on the origins of water on Earth, Chile's failure to exploit its sinuous coastline and the fate of a Yagan youth who was sold to an English naval captain for a pearl button.


Since coming to international prominence with The Battle Of Chile (1975-79), Patricio Guzmán has devoted his career to censuring General Augusto Pinochet, who overthrew Chile's democractically elected president, Salvador Allende, in 1973.

Lingering on a shot of a single drop of water inside a 3000 year-old block of quartz, Guzmán strays into Werner Herzog territory.

Once again commemorating the countless desaparecidos who were murdered by the regime, this meticulous blend of travelogue and political tract forms the middle part of a trilogy completed by Nostalgia For The Light (2010) and a forthcoming rumination on the Andes mountains. But, while Guzmán relates some shameful incidents from the darkest periods of Chilean history, his trenchant points are somewhat undermined by their presentation.

Lingering on a shot of a single drop of water inside a 3000 year-old block of quartz crystal, Guzmán strays into Werner Herzog territory to muse on the astral origins of water and the formation of the Patagonian archipelago that was once home to such indigenous tribes as the Kawesqar, Yagan and Selknam. Gabriela Paterito and Martin Calderon recall how their ancestors used to live off this warren of islands and Guzman laments Chile's failure to exploit the potential of its 2670-mile coastline.

Over Katell Djian's majestic imagery, Guzmán also uses the case of a youth from Tierra del Fuego (who acquired the nickname `Jemmy Button' after being sold for a button to a British sea captain) to decry the missionaries and mercenaries who presaged the land-grabbing genocide that he compares to the Pinochet policy of tying dissidents to lengths of railway line and dropping them from helicopters into the ocean. Yet, as with the earlier CGI interludes, the reconstruction of this monstrous savagery feels gratuitous and proves as enervating as the gauche poeticism of the otherwise heartfelt narration.

Despite the striking photography, this fascinating denunciation of 150 years of persecution and oppression lacks Guzmán's customary trenchancy and restraint.