For the life of me, I’ll never comprehend why auteur filmmakers today feel compelled to create stories packed with meta-messages and ersatz depth you wonder if there was a point to the entire thing at all. Not that I’m dissing auteur cinema or directors who delve into the deep, unknowable waters of the subconscious. I can kick back and enjoy some slow cinema and watch a story progress until it reaches its conclusion, or decides to give me a middle finger and go “Gotcha. No resolution. Thank you for your time. Go back to your puny little life.” Memoria is a strange beast that has the audacity to do both and emerge unscathed.
Apipatchong Weerasethakul makes a movie every five or so years. Always there is the concept of what lies beyond life as we know it. The dead and the living mix, characters may become Moebius strips of a fragmented, dreamed existence, and we sit back and take it all in, every last detail, and walk out in a daze. His latest movie, Memoria, fits into that category. And as much as it sounds like I’m typing with an annoyed emoji drawn wide across my visage, I feel like I have to admit that while I don’t pretend to say I got it all, I can stand back and call it “something esoteric.” Ish.
So let’s see. A woman wakes up in the middle of the night to a strange sound. The sound sets off some car alarms. The sound rattles her. Breaks her continuity. So far, so good. The woman, Jessica (Tilda Swinton in a rare lead) lives in Colombia and is tending to her sister (Agnes Brekke) as she recovers from dreams in a Bogota hospital. She continues to hear this noise until she meets a sound engineer, Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego) who moonlights as a futuristic punk rocker. Hernan is able to pinpoint Jessica’s sound almost to a science. However, on the day they are supposed to go exploring a historical site, he goes missing.
Jessica then does the trek alone. It brings her to a place deep inside Colombian wildlife where she encounters a man also named Hernan (Elkin Diaz). This is a man who’s never left his mountainside and prefers to live in isolation for fear of the experience of the world. In short, he’s seen more than he cares to, and it’s enough. Jessica’s meeting with the older Hernan will be the point where the movie reveals more about itself while still leaving you, the audience, a bit confounded. Memories of dreams become entwined with real-life and past-life experiences, and in the end, that same sonic boom.
Much of Memoria lands squarely on two people: director Weerasethakul and Swinton. Swinton never gets a close-up proper, so she has to convey to us, the audience, that Jessica is a woman who seems to be kind but is also reserved and perhaps a bit aloof, while not glacial. In hearing these sounds and being the only person (as to her knowledge) capable of hearing this, she appears to be slowly emerging from a place of deep despair into something resembling enlightenment and acceptance.
Weerasethakul, on the other hand, presents a story that moves at its own deliberate pace. He isn’t interested in shocks and traditional narratives. His science fiction is closely bound to the land and its history, man’s relation to time and space, man’s relation to technology, and man’s apparent denial of spirit except in a chosen few. Even without the complicated puzzle that he presents Memoria comes bursting with quiet wonder. Scene after scene lingers on, forcing the attention to its universe. If it falls short of a masterpiece, it will depend on how you receive the last 30 or so minutes. Personally, on a second viewing, I felt that right up until then, it worked in the same way that Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey worked.
I believe that maybe a third viewing may glean some new light, but as it stands, Memoria is quite an achievement even when the overlapping timelines threaten to alienate viewers not used to this type of story.
For those of you interested, this movie will not be streaming in the foreseeable future in the US. For tickets and showtimes, go here. You do have an alternative to seeing it via MUBI Italy if seeing it in person is not an option.