“Memoria”

Among my latest ventures is working as a film critic for the revamped New York Sun. Should you be interested, the website can be found here. In the meantime, I’ll be posting reviews of movies that, for one reason or another, didn’t see print. (I guess that should be “print,” given that the Sun is online-only.) You’ll find below my take on the much-anticipated picture from Apichatpong Weerasethakul, “Memoria.”

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria”; courtesy of Neon

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Rarely has a film needed the talents of Mel Brooks as much as “Memoria,” the most recent effort by director Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

Does anyone remember “The Critic,” the 1963 Oscar winner for Best Animated Short Film? Over a screen populated with a compendium of Miró-like abstractions, we hear Mr. Brooks, very much in alte kaker mode, airing the opinions of a disgruntled movie-goer. He doesn’t think much of the filmmaker’s pretensions: “A fella like that could drive a truck; do something constructive–make a shoe.”

As a measure of art-house cinema, this criterion is a sound one. How many pieces of avant-gardist maundering are as good as a shoe? There have been more egregious examples of the genre than “Memoria,” and, to be fair, Mr. Weerasethakul has an impressive track record. “Cemetery of Splendor” earned its plaudits a few years back, and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives,” though an imperfect film, is, in many respects, the standard for world cinema. Clearly, Mr. Weerasethakul can do more than make a shoe. 

Until now. In a statement accompanying “Memoria,” the Bangkok-born director writes that the film’s impetus were the hallucinations he experienced while traveling in Colombia. On a mission to collect “expressions and memories,” Mr. Weerasethakul began hearing a loud noise, usually at dawn and the country over. “The massive sierras . . . ,” he observed, “are like the folds of the brain, or the curves of sound waves.” Colombia proved a location where “delusion is the norm.”

Far be it for me to question an individual’s direct response to this-or-that phenomenon. Still, Mr. Weeasthakul’s declamations put me in mind of the old saw about other people’s dreams–you know, that they’re boring. “Memoria” isn’t altogether a bore, but the film’s longueurs, sodden as they are with a peculiarly recalcitrant brand of symbolism, can be a chore to sit through. Not a few people in the polite crowd with whom I attended the picture spent an inordinate amount of time checking their watches. When art becomes a duty something has gone awry.

“Memoria” centers on Jessica Holland, a specialist in orchids played by Tilda Swinton, and, tangentially, her recently hospitalized sister Karen (Agnes Brekke). Jessica and only Jessica hears a sound: a booming mechanical thud that punctuates her psyche–and the film–at random moments. She visits a sound engineer named Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) who manages to approximate the noise on an audio board.

But, then, Hernán may not be real. When Jessica revisits the recording studio, she discovers that no one by that name works there. Packing her bags, Jessica heads up the Amazon. It is there that she meets a fisherman who is also named Hernán (Elkin Díaz), and spends a lengthy amount of time with him–as does the audience. At this point, “Memoria” slows to a crawl. At moments, Mr. Weerasethakul’s moving picture doesn’t seem to move at all.

As it turns out, Hernan No. 2 and Jessica share a kind of telekinetic connection. Then Hernan No. 2 up-and-dies, except he doesn’t, and did I mention the spaceship? Oh, and anthropologists; they’re here as well, looking into something or other. Ritualistic practices, maybe. Nothing is made clear in “Memoria.” It’s enough to make you think that Mr. Weerasethakul mistakes obscurantism for poetry.

Most of the film’s running time is devoted to Ms. Swinton sitting or walking. Here, she ambles through the center of Medellin; there, she’s ensconced by a window staring at the rainforest. Given that Mr. Weerasethakul moves his camera only reluctantly, the onus is on Ms. Swinton to hold our attention. Would that she were a more generous actress. As it is, her diffidence only makes an already difficult movie close to intolerable. And no one, not even Mr. Brooks’s critic, should have to sit through that.

© 2022 Mario Naves

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