The “Memoria” slow cinema offer is simply unforgettable

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Rating: 5.0 / 5.0

A film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul lives and breaths. As his cinema inhales and exhales with each long take, intention hits you. The Thai director, whose latest film is both his first feature out of the country and in English, said in Giovanni Marchini Camia’s exquisite diary that he doesn’t want viewers to have to connect the dots to understand. The irony, of course, is it the bottom 10-15? 20? – the minutes of “Memoria” are a great series of points in a film which is in equal parts of meditation and vignettes.

Let’s go back to the beginning. In the film, the so majestic Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, a British expatriate, a botanist who wakes up one morning in Medellín to the sound of a thud that only she can hear. She checks with her brother-in-law, Juan: is there any work next door? No. (Remember, this question is part of a conversation that lasts several minutes.) So she confides her case to a sound engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), and sets out to find the source of the sound.

The stage is a phenomenal exercise in Weerasethakul’s slow cinema. It starts with Hernán alone in the room, and “Memoria” gives us a moment to watch him take some notes. Then Swinton strolls (sometimes shuffle, other times her feet stutter in apprehension) through the frame, looking through the recording booth window. She enters. They say hello, and Jessica stays there until Hernán waves to the gallery behind him.

The camera is fixed as often, here behind the cabin. At some point – it’s blurry when that happens – the scene becomes a trance. The whole becomes placid; to us, it is as if the ocean has stopped swelling and froze. The sparkle of the scene depends on how well she separates Jessica from the world around her, and when “Memoria” breaks the spell, the character is firmly an outsider.

Swinton deserves significant credit for this. On her puzzled face, “Memoria” projects a deep sense of nostalgia. Right now, she’s desperately trying to make sound exist beyond her head – she wants Hernán to hear what she’s hearing. However, the broad strokes of Jessica’s peculiar affliction take her out of Medellín and into a countryside more familiar to Weerasethakul’s earlier work.

The director has long created visions of romance. “Blissfully Yours” plunged into titular bliss, with long scenes taking place under awnings and on river beds. In “Tropical Malady”, two men explore their attraction to the forests of Thailand. Both cases revolve around desire, perhaps more evident in the latter’s romantic attachments. These two are much more willing to show the body and sexuality on screen than in “Memoria”.

Yet Swinton is a mainstay of androgyny, and here she is no different, alongside a fluid interpretation of sexuality. While Weerasethakul may not be quite so explicit, he is nonetheless interested: at one point, Jessica flirts with Hernán, the next rubs shoulders with an anthropologist named Agnès (Jeanne Balibar). But all of this serves to make the character even more isolated. Above all, Jessica is caught up in something that only takes shape at the very end.

Eventually, she finds herself in a haunting final act that is literally the surface of memories. It’s a bold, quirky ending that puts Jessica’s pursuit into perspective. The sound she pursues is not hers. It is a memory, a reminder of the stature of a national conscience. Location is essential to the film, and as Jessica leaves the tech and build world and travels to a rural, agrarian countryside, a story told earlier in the film returns.

This story is how the film foreshadows a clash between technology and history – a past Colombia remembers, despite its own government’s attempts to eradicate it. Jessica remembers a replacement for it in the climax which, while conceptualized purely by sound, is unforgettable, as is “Memoria”.

Dominic Marziali covers the film. Contact him at [email protected].


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