In ‘Memoria,’ Tilda Swinton Plays a Spiritual Adventuress Seeking the Source of a Mysterious Sound
TThese are movies that you will need to view twice in order for you to comprehend. Some movies are more difficult than others, and they become even more confusing the more you see them. Memoria, the latest from Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, starring Tilda Swinton as a Scottish woman temporarily displaced in the jungles of Colombia, may be one of the latter—though that’s a recommendation, not a deterrent. Anyone who claims to fully grasp every element of Weerasethakul’s movies—like the haunted reverie Uncle Boonmee, Who can recall his past livesOder Tropical Malady a lush dream romance—is blowing smoke, and should be avoided. He weaves a spell through his pictures that is lingering somewhere between mind and spirit like a song before your birth. They’re so vividly filmed that it’s easy to recall and describe their imagery, but once you start heading down that road, you find yourself lapsing into synesthesia: how, for example, can a tree be alight with crackling radio signals? But those kinds of seemingly contradictory apparitions are standard in Weerasethakul’s world. These movies can be described as a form of broad-awake anesthesia. These movies leave you not only unsure where your body has been but also unsure where your spirit is.
That’s true of MemoriaEven though the movie may be confusing to even experienced Weerasethakulites, it is still worth seeing. The movie will be released in cinemas all over the United States starting April 1st. You can find a list of all the theaters where it is being shown here. Swinton’s character, Jessica, lives in Medellín, where she runs some sort of flower-marketing business; it’s hinted that she recently lost her husband and is grieving. In our first encounter with her, we watch as she’s awakened by a strange, hollow thudding sound, which she at first believes to be the noise of construction going on next door. Later, though, the sound recurs while she’s in the company of others, and it becomes clear that only she can hear it.
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The movie follows the trail of that mysterious sound as it traces Jessica’s comings and goings and random encounters. Her sister, Karen (Agnes Brekke), lives in Bogotá, and is suffering from a mysterious ailment; Jessica visits her in the hospital as she awakens from deep slumber, and we can feel the heaviness of weird dreams in the room. As Jessica tries to unravel the mystery behind the mysterious, persistent and eerie sound she hears, Hernan, a young sound engineer from Juan Pablo Urrego, meets her. There’s a hint of flirtation between the two, or maybe it’s just a kind of simpatico kindness. Jessica is the only one who has ever heard of Hernan when she returns to her studio. It’s as if she had summoned him from a reverie, perhaps from the same source of that melancholy, metallic thud that haunts her.
Does that mysterious sound exist? Memoria?Yes, and no. This is the first film Weerasethakul has made outside of Thailand, with non-Thai actors, and Swinton’s presence is likely to attract a new audience. She’s perfect for the film’s aura of solemn thoughtfulness: Jessica is a seeker, a kind of pilgrim in this verdant but not wholly welcoming jungle world. The film is infused with the beauty and mystery of the Amazon rainforest. In the movie’s key scene, and its greatest one, Jessica meets a man—also named Hernan, but much older than the sound engineer, and played by Elkin Díaz—who spends his days cleaning fish by a brook. He says that he never moved from the place he calls home. “I remember everything. This is why I restrict what I see. That’s why I never watch movies or TV.”
Jessica can connect to the past and unknowable future through the man she meets. Jessica also experiences traumas that she hasn’t experienced, yet they seem to have been ingrained in her land. The sound she hears everywhere is something that Jessica also begins to recognize. But the imagery accompanying that discovery is best left undescribed—it’s one of the film’s most visually poetic surprises. Memoria is moody and perplexing, even in the context of Weerasethakul’s others, and if you’re a neophyte, it may not be the best one to start with. But even so, its circuitous, misty trails of logic leave you feeling as if you’ve been entrusted with some kind of nebulous treasure; it’s easy to become pleasurably lost in speculation about what it all means. This is a film about how memories manifest themselves and stretch across populations, about both the concrete and elusive nature of sound, about the secrets of the universe that we’ll never be able to unlock. There’s a lot to unpack in just one viewing, or even six. But like all of Weerasethakul’s movies, MemoriaYou feel like you are an outside-of-body adventurer. The only thing that ties you to your physical body in the cinema seat is a thin thread of consciousness.
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