“Memoria” translates simply to “memory” in Spanish. The four syllables were also truly promising some resumption of a post-pandemic high-end cinema for us obsessives across the globe. Unlike, perhaps, Carax and Verhoeven of that delayed-from-2020 crop, Apichatpong Weerasethakul has vaulted (or floated) over expectations with a work of brilliance.
The vaunted partnership between Tilda Swinton and the Thai master has been fermenting for many years—Cemetery of Splendour was indeed slated to be their first feature-film collaboration. But here, as has been widely noted in pre-release reporting, Apichatpong is in ostensibly unfamiliar territory: Colombia, on the northern coast of South America—a land marked by beauty, ongoing civil strife, and a charged, challenged relationship to its own history. Not far from his Thailand, we might say.
Memoria was developed over many years, the filmmaker visiting Colombia as a civilian, talking to one and all in countryside and city, bourgeois and proletarian alike. Swinton is thus an incarnation of his outsider status: Jessica, a British-born breeder of rare flowers living in Medellín. The plot commences as she urgently travels down to its highest-populated city, Bogotá, an intimidating metropolis that the director shoots as a futuristic-looking variation of what Cuarón devised with Mexico City in Roma. Shot on 35mm in deep-focus and with a metallic, de-colored edge, cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom finds overcast light, sprawling concrete and glass architecture, and commemorative, historical statues to die for, briefly invoking Chris Marker and Alain Resnais’ short, anti-colonialist 1953 essay film Statues Also Die.
Jessica’s bedridden sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) isn’t just unwell; the former’s own health is playing up, her aural world invaded by intermittent, utterly mysterious bangs. This cacophony, frightening yet portrayed in such an unnervingly matter-of-fact way, is one of the greatest elliptical mysteries the director has devised to date. In a film with just one, glorious instance of non-diegetic music (a four-piece band Jessica stumbles upon at a university, playing jazzy, uptempo post-rock), we’re reminded of the mutant-disco 12”s of fellow queer master Arthur Russell with his track “Go Bang.” This film, indeed, goes bang.
Memoria is such a “musique concrète”-type film. It’s really about this quest, sometimes almost Tarkovskian––to put a certain sound in context, to be the mixing or mastering engineer of the roiling sounds in your soul. Tropical Malady and Syndromes and a Century become most pertinent as it moves on. There are two very distinct halves, the second helping clarify the sprawling, unanswered questions of the first, which also extend to an archeological excavation headed by Jeanne Balibar’s scientist character and a sweet, flirtatious sound engineer helping recreate Jessica’s sound artificially, as only she can hear it.
It would be cruel to spoil where exactly Memoria goes. To be as suggestive, yet covert as possible, the great innovation of this film is the notion of how sounds can be memories—all too often in the popular imagination, we think of them as mini-movies of the mind, or visual spots of time as in The Tree of Life or the Romantic poet Wordsworth’s concept. Think about when drawing one’s mind back, how is the aural quality of a memory or dream palpable? The key line of dialogue, as its vital second-half figure Hernán (Elkin Diaz) tells Jessica, “I am like the hard drive, and you are the antenna,” arousing thoughts of the more academic notion of collective memory.
This film is like the best internet radio station around: log in on the app of your choice, but the connection will be intermittent; the crackles and glitches are all part of the deceptively lulling pleasure.
Memoria premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and will be released in the US by NEON.