Review: ‘The Pearl Button’ deftly relates harsh Chilean history

By turns lyrical, impressionistic and profound, the documentary “The Pearl Button” requires patience but offers stirring rewards. Writer-director Patricio Guzmán’s cinematic ode to his native Chile, particularly the southern region of western Patagonia, tells an age-old story of beauty and brutality and how, as one observer here declares, “everything is water.”

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Guzmán (“The Battle of Chile,” “Nostalgia for the Light”), who also provides the film’s gentle, often poetic narration, stealthily wends his way from a meditation on the sea to the bigger subject at hand: How, in the late 19th century, much of Patagonia’s indigenous populace was decimated at the hands of colonial settlers. Guzmán then deftly links this harsh chapter in Chilean history to the many appalling and mysterious events that occurred under the country’s notorious dictator, Augusto Pinochet, who reigned from 1973-90.

En route, the filmmaker interviews several soulful descendants of southern Chile’s long-dwindling Kawésqar and Yagán tribes. He also includes talks with such Chilean notables as poet-activist Raúl Zurita, professor and social historian Gabriel Salazar, and musician and anthropologist Claudio Mercado.


At the heart of the movie, however, lies the affecting tale of a Yámana tribal member who became known as Jemmy Button. In 1830, he was one of four Tierra del Fuego natives taken hostage by a British naval officer and brought to England, where they spent a year as quasi-celebrities. Button returned to Chile a lost soul, never to fully recover his true self. How the pearl button of the film’s title factors into this story comes full circle here in a moving and masterful way.

Gorgeous cinematography by Katell Djian plus compelling archival and portrait photos round out this unique, hypnotic documentary.


“The Pearl Button”

MPAA rating: None

Running time: 1 hour, 22 minutes. In Spanish and Kawésqar with English subtitles.

Playing: Landmark’s Nuart Theatre, West Los Angeles.