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Film review: Memoria

by
14 January 2022

Stephen Brown views a contemplative film

Tilda Swinton and Elkin Díaz in Memoria

Tilda Swinton and Elkin Díaz in Memoria

MEMORIA (Cert. PG) is Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s first film outside his native Thailand. As enchantingly mysterious as his Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Arts, 19 November 2010), this film is set in Colombia. It affirms the director’s Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls. Here he explores how one particular individual experiences something that nobody else does, but could.

Jessica (Tilda Swinton), who runs a market garden in the Andes, visits Bogotá, where her sister, Karen (Agnes Brekke), is in hospital. Her illness is as puzzling as the odd sounds that Jessica alone hears. Nothing can account for them. Are these premonitions of a changing world, vouchsafed only to Jessica?

An archeological dig occurring in the city brings fresh revelations of past lives. Perhaps it is this that has precipitated the start of a sonic awakening. A friend puts her in touch with Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a student working in a recording studio. She asks him to replicate the sound that she hears in her head. Later, again seeking Hernán, she finds that nobody of that name works there. But, further on, an older man, Hernán (Elkin Diaz), appears. Sheer coincidence, or, in Weerasethakul’s world-view, an instance of reincarnation?

Hernán invokes forgotten, barely understood, primeval memories for Jessica. At the very least, it is another pointer towards realising that our lives are caught up, often unknowingly, in an arcane universe fraught with tantalising conundrums.

The film will remind admiriers of a style made famous by the Japanese director Yasujiro Ozu: single, medium-distance shots of people engaging with one another. No close-ups — as if to state that others are never entirely known to us, or that we need to take a step backwards if we are truly to perceive these fellow-travellers through life. When the film eventually leads us into the jungle, is this a sly nod to a past that have neglected — places like The Lost City, for example? Reference is made to The Invisible People, an Amazonian tribe that creates spells to keep others away. Weerasethakul is asking the audience to consider how we distance ourselves and why.

Memoria, by proceeding at a meditative pace, attests powerfully to meaningfulness being all around us — unlike the “boum” sound echoing from the Marabar Caves in E.M. Forster’s A Pasage to India, which represents the emptiness behind all human activity. We need only to stop and listen to what the Spirit is saying to us. Celtic spirituality speaks of thin places where the veil between the natural world and the ethereal is lifted and we experience the divine. If “time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future” (T. S. Eliot, Four Quartets), then the aid to this is memory. It has been called the scribe of the soul.

In the art of rhetoric, the canon of Memoria is considered its handmaid for being a treasury of the soul’s experiences, something on which we should constantly draw, so that the image of God may continue to live in a culture all too prone to deleting what has gone before. Memoria performs a great service in alerting us to this danger.

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