Big Screen Berkeley: ‘The Pearl Button’

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Patricio Guzman’s new film El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button) opens at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in downtown Berkeley on Friday, Dec. 4.

Chilean filmmaker Patricio Guzman prefers pondering the big questions. In his 2011 feature Nostalgia for the Light, he combined rumination on the legacy of Augusto Pinochet with the sciences of archaeology and radio-astronomy, creating a thought-provoking cinematic stew set amid the driest place on Earth, the Atacama Desert.

Guzman’s new film El botón de nácar (The Pearl Button, opening at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas on Friday, Dec. 4) begins roughly where Nostalgia for the Light left off: with a 3,000-year-old block of quartz found in the Atacama. Within this quartz, paradoxically, exists a single drop of water, a rarity in a region where less than a tenth of an inch of rain falls each year.

There’s uncertainty about how Earth became such a moist planet, but the general consensus is that water travelled here through the cosmos via asteroid or comet. However it got here, this cosmic gift became an essential ingredient for all life on the planet – and The Pearl Button’s focal point.

From the arid Atacama, Guzman’s camera travels to damp Patagonia, the sparsely inhabited ‘archipelago of rain’ at the southernmost tip of the South American continent. The Pearl Button introduces us to the region’s indigenous inhabitants, ‘water nomads’ who arrived 10,000 years ago and lived in relative harmony until the white man’s arrival in the 19th century.


The button of the film’s title refers to the price paid by English explorers for Orundellico, a native who by force or choice — the historical record on this point isn’t entirely clear — travelled with them to London in 1830. Dubbed ‘Jemmy Button’ by his abductors/hosts, Orundellico sailed there on HMS Beagle (yes, that HMS Beagle), becoming a celebrity before returning home, where he claimed to literally have become a completely different person than the one who’d left Patagonia a year prior.

Virtually driven to extinction by white settlers, the region’s few remaining natives can no longer ply the waterways as did their ancestors for thousands of years: the Chilean Navy has deemed travel by canoe from Punta Arenas to Cape Horn far too dangerous. The natives are now landlocked, where a few of them have kept their language – which has words for neither ‘God’ nor ‘police’ – on life support.

This wouldn’t be a Guzman film, of course, if it didn’t make reference to both Salvador Allende and Augusto Pinochet. The horrors of the 1970s are revisited here with a grim reconstruction of one of the methods the Pinochet regime used to dispose of its enemies: the dumping, alive or dead, of dissidents into the waters of the Pacific, after which their corpses would periodically wash up on the Patagonian beaches.

Less documentary than philosophical essay, The Pearl Button is a thing of deep, intense beauty anchored by stunning photography of ice, rain, and hail and recordings of the sounds made by water in its varied forms. This is a film to sink into, a thoughtful meditation on the stuff of life and of “things that converse with other things.”

Berkeleyside’s film writer John Seal writes a weekly movie recommendation column at Box Office Prophets, as well as a column in The Phantom of the Movies’ Videoscope, an old-fashioned paper magazine, published quarterly. Read more from Big Screen Berkeley on Berkeleyside.


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