Memoria (2021) – film review

Many art cinema directors, who developed a unique style in their native countries and languages, stumbled when trying to transfer their poetics to foreign cinematography, especially with local stars at their disposal. Hirokazu Koreeda in France only made a nice “Truth”, far from the genius of his Japanese works; Asghar Farhadi’s Spanish-language “Everyone Knows” is a murky and unreadable kitsch, and Xavier Dolan’s unsuccessful English-language debut, The Death and Life of John F. Donovan, is basically regarded as non-existent. Apichatpoing Weerasethakul, a director who has so far shot exclusively in his native Thailand, in Thai and with local actors, also finally made a film abroad. He did not make any mistakes and – just like a few years ago, the Greek Yórgos Lánthimos – thus proved his extreme, impressive authorship and talent for ruthlessly subjugating the film material to himself.

A multinational co-production, “Memoria” was shot in Colombia, that is, in the other hemisphere; the film contains dialogues in Spanish and English, and one of the greatest stars of world cinema, Tilda Swinton, starred in it. Everything seems different than in the previous works of the Thai artist, and yet it is carefully inscribed in the developed style, which fits surprisingly well into different realities. Anyway, the already cursory glances at the frames from “Memoria” prove formal kinship with his Thai paintings: streets and squares of a large city in a tropical zone, a jungle, a hospital, figures in complete plans. Another continent and language do not mean a change in the way of storytelling. The director of the “Uncle Boonmee” awarded with the Palme d’Or in Cannes, who can recall his previous incarnations “does not resign from the long, static and contemplative shots characteristic of slow cinemanor the onirism characteristic of his cinema, the language of subtle metaphors and the interest in metaphysics. In other words, Weerasethakul has remained Weerasethakul and once again offers us a brazenly peculiar cinematic experience. Some viewers may take a nap during the screening, others will find the film pretentious, boring, ridiculous, or even a waste of time, but those who take up the artist’s challenge and follow his story will leave the cinema relaxed with a head full of deep thoughts about remembering and passing away and the relationship between nature and civilization.

Memoria begins with a mysterious bang waking Jessica (Swinton), a British botanist living in Medellín, who came to Bogota to visit her sick sister. The enigmatic and piercing rumble haunts her more and more often, but no one but her hears it. Jessica, visiting various places and people in the capital of Colombia, tries to discover the origin of the returning sound, and this quasi-investigation directs her towards the Amazon jungle. Weerasethakul loosely and perversely uses the genre tropes of a detective film, (anti) crime fiction and horror, but any fictional introduction has nothing to do with the film’s core, which is as ghostly and elusive as the aforementioned sound. We can wonder what the bang appearing out of nowhere means – is it a warning or a coded signal for the heroine? It comes “from within the earth” – as Jessica describes it – or from beyond the planet?

The world presented here is full of cracks and shifts oscillating around memory, time and death, and their transcendent intertwining. The protagonist, who seems to endure in time alone, meets a man on her way who remembers every moment and detail from his life, while her sister is lost in simple memories. The dentist who allegedly died a year ago is alive; the sound engineer helping the Briton recreate the whirlwind that disturbed her reportedly never existed. When the saleswoman shows the protagonist modern botanical cabinets, she says that “time stops there”. On the same day, Jessica had in her hand a 6,000-year-old girl’s skull with a hole, most likely created – as a friend of the archaeologist explains – as a result of a ritual to free the child from harassment by the evil spirit. And although “Memoria”, due to its intellectual clashes of meaning and its unhurried, rhythmic pace closely related to the sinusoid of sounds and silence, may seem deadly serious, Weerasethakul, as always, imbues it with a specific comedy. It is peculiar slow slapstic stretched between absurdity and awkwardness straight from Roy Anderson films with a hint of Jacques Taty charm. It can be seen, for example, in the scene when the protagonist, forced to interrupt her rest, helps the doctor to move the row of chairs that serves as a temporary protection for one of the hospital rooms; as it turns out – a morgue that Jessica would love to visit.

The camera hardly takes its eyes off the botanist visiting Bogota. This does not mean, however, that we are right next to the heroine. On the contrary – the style of the director of “The Light of the Century” imposes a considerable distance. The artist is known for not using close-ups to direct the viewers’ attention – he preferably shows the characters in a full or medium shot in static shots. Even with Tilda Swinton in the cast, he decides not to contemplate her face on-screen. So although for a large part of the film we observe Jessica listening to various sounds or staring at something, this face never fills the entire frame. The star face does not become a stage podium, as was the case with Juliette Binoche’s performance in “Camille Claudel, 1915” by Bruno Dumont, who previously did not involve stars in his projects. This does not mean, however, that Weerasethakul does not take advantage of the aura surrounding Swinton. Entering the British woman in this metaphysical, decadent and oneiric story multiplies Jessica’s strangeness in the place she came to, but also her uniqueness.

Swinton, with perhaps the most flexible in the world emploi and the most diverse filmography (from Béla Tarr and Derek Jarman, through Jim Jarmusch, Bong Joon-ho and Wes Anderson, to the Coen brothers and the Marvel universe), appears to be both average and out of this world – the perfect medium for a character haunted by a surreal bang and embarking on an existential journey along the tides of the world’s memory.

Trying to capture the essence of “Memoria” and outline the issues it raises, it is hard not to fall into banality. Especially that with each successive scene the film becomes more and more ambiguous, poetic and symbolic, and its epiphanies are scattered among the silence. Weerasethakul takes us on a long, mesmerizing journey. However, the climb is worth the effort – the view from above is beautiful, and the seemingly lost time becomes time rediscovered.

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