The Cordillera of Dreams: the masterful capper of an extraordinary documentary trilogy

Taking its name from the Andean mountain range that encircles Santiago, director Patricio Guzmán’s city of birth, this poetic, political film explores the complex relationship between memory, history, nature and geography.

7 October 2022

By Maria Delgado

The Cordillera of Dreams (2019)
Sight and Sound

Patricio Guzmán has described The Cordillera of Dreams, which follows his Nostalgia for the Light (2010) and The Pearl Button (2015), as the final entry in a trilogy; all three documentaries are unified by his poetic narration of a political journey through Chile’s recent history. Whereas Nostalgia for the Light was set in the Atacama desert in the country’s northern extremes, The Pearl Button turned its eye to the country’s southern tip, where glaciers sit alongside the stone carvings of the indigenous populations that once lived along the coast. The Andean mountain range from which The Cordillera of Dreams takes its name is described by Guzmán as the country’s “immense spine”, framing the capital city of Santiago and sitting as a silent witness to the atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime, which forcibly detained Guzmán and thousands of others in the national stadium in Santiago following the coup that ousted Salvador Allende in 1973. Guzmán subsequently left the country, but The Cordillera of Dreams demonstrates that Chile remains a key part of his identity, evincing, like the earlier films in the trilogy, the complex relationship between memory, history, nature and geography with both the contextual sensitivity of an insider and the discerning eye of an outsider.

La Cordillera first emerges in an aerial shot captured by cinematographer Samuel Lahu; we see peaks of white rock nestled between clouds. This breathtaking vista is accompanied by Guzmán’s steady narrative, reflecting on the condition of exile as he returns to a city where where he can’t recognise the air he breathes. As a youth, part of a generation that was “far too busy building a new society”, he had no time for the Andean mountain range. But as an older man, he has shifted his gaze towards the mountains, recognising that they are “perhaps the gateway to an understanding of present-day Chile”.

This understanding is conveyed through talking-head artists and scientists, who discuss the Cordillera’s role in the Chilean imaginary. Sculptor Vicente Gajardo claims that this “cultural landmark”, which surrounds Santiago, signifies the need to look at what is within and beyond. Volcanologist Álvaro Amigo sees a journey into the Cordillera as a journey into the past. Singer Javiera Parra and writer Jorge Baradit identify it as a wall that both protects and separates Chile from the rest of the world. For sculptor Francisco Gazitúa, the Cordillera “holds the traces of ancestors… 20,000 years of traces… a mystery that can’t be explained, it just exists”. Gazitúa’s comments are emblematic of a film that is able to meld the mystical grandeur of the mountains – Lahu’s camera captures the range from a series of perspectives and angles — with the quotidian: reflections on Chile’s performance in the 1960 World Cup, familiar images of the Cordillera decorating matchboxes.

Indeed, Guzmán is a master of juxtaposition. A shot of Guillermo Muñoz’s mural of the Cordillera on the walls of a subway station platform, walked past indifferently by innumerable passengers, is followed by the impassioned brushstrokes of Muñoz capturing the rugged contours and colours of the mountains. The camera sweeps over the near-ruined, graffiti-covered house of Guzmán’s childhood, only to show the array of skyscrapers that now frame it. “This film is like the reflection of a past that is pursuing me,” states Guzmán, but it is arguably Guzmán and cameraman Pablo Salas, whose film-stock footage anchors the documentary’s second half, who are actively pursuing and reframing the past, providing visual evidence of that which the dictatorship tried to cover up: military violence, detention centres, forced disappearance, street protests. Salas’s archive counters the politics of forgetting by showing both abuse and resistance; it challenges a narrative that dismisses the dictatorship’s practices as mere ‘errors’ rather than a systematic process of annihilating those who challenged its ideology. Guzmán films Salas filming protestors targeted with aggressive water cannons, illustrating how Pinochet’s imposition of a neoliberalist ideology that conflated value with profit continues to plague contemporary Chile.

“In Chile,” states Guzmán, “what cannot be seen does not exist.” The Cordillera of Dreams gives visibility to the unseen. This extraordinary, poetic, political work is a heartfelt corrective to a mode of being that intentionally turns away; it encourages the viewer to look deeply at things that have been erased, overlooked, or, like the Cordillera, taken for granted. It brings into existence hidden histories as a way of better contextualising the past and better understanding the relationship between landscape and memory, which continues to shape the present.

► The Cordillera of Dreams is in UK cinemas now.