‘Memoria,’ a Mesmerizing Film About the Secrets of the Universe

Memoria Film BELatina Latinx
Photo courtesy of imdb.com

It’s been a long time since I’ve walked out of a movie theater with a sense of awe and stunned wonder like I felt after watching “Memoria” — and that includes since before COVID. Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s film starring Tilda Swinton and shot in Colombia definitely accomplished something I thought was long lost.

“Memoria” tells the story of Jessica (Swinton), an Englishwoman living in Medellin who travels to Bogota to visit her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke), who is hospitalized for a strange illness.

During her stay at her sister’s house, Jessica begins to hear a mysterious sound that makes her think she is losing her mind.

As Jessica’s relationship with her psyche and her memory becomes more convoluted, the Englishwoman travels to two places in Colombia. She meets Héctor, a man who remembers everything from the beginning of time, even though he has never left the town where he was born, because, as we later understand, he is in touch with the totality of things.

The encounter with Hector will radically alter Jessica’s relationship with that sound that was driving her crazy and, in one of those science fiction plot twists, will also alter her way of perceiving the universe.

Colombia and memory

Colombia is a country where the word “memory” is crucial to our identity. Unlike what one might expect, not because we are good at remembering, but because it is one of our national wounds. 

Due to our long history of armed conflict, memory is one of the tasks we have as a nation and, perhaps, one of the ones that hurt us the most. Consequently, every time we hear the word “memory,” we think of building a memory of the armed conflict.  

One of the ideas that “Memoria” left resonating in me is perhaps we should propose to understand memory (and our identity) also from a broader perspective. The armed conflict is a crucial part of our history and affects who we are, but there is much more to it than the story of our sorrows. 

Several Colombian journalists have asked Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul about the relationship between his film and the armed conflict. Each time, he has responded kindly, assuring that, while he is concerned about the violence, war is not the point he wanted to refer to.

As he told France 24, “not forgetting is important. Remembering is very important to me, and that’s why there is a character who never forgets. And I feel that, as a person, Jessica has learned that. And maybe she doesn’t exist. Maybe it’s a country or a person; we don’t know. But the key is to be aware. Aware of what happened and aware of the now.”

However, as the film shows our landscapes, our mountains, cities, rivers, and tunnels, I couldn’t help but feel that there was a note of pain in it. There was much more in the photography and in Tilda Swinton’s demeanor than was in plain sight. 

In June of this year, Arcadia Magazine interviewed Apichatpong Weerasethakul and asked him how he felt about Colombia. He said he felt comfortable here but did not want to portray the country’s reality as his roots are elsewhere. He made the film “like a ghost absorbing lights and sounds” as a tribute to this territory from a foreigner’s perspective. He contemplated “the wounds and scars of Colombia,” but his approach was limited to “observing them and being aware of them.” He said he thought those wounds would reveal themselves — to us Colombians — in every frame. And so it did. 

The director’s statement also seems to demonstrate how to relate to the cultures and pains of other countries without being disrespectful, without falling into cultural appropriation, without whitewashing anything. 

“Memoria” was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and won the Jury Prize. At the time, Colombia was experiencing a three-month-long wave of social protests. The entire crew appeared at the gala holding a Colombian flag with the letters S.O.S. in response to the police brutality in the streets at the time. The film was still unknown in Colombia (it was released at the end of September), but the gesture was well received, as we felt it showed genuine affection for the country. 

“Memoria,” this film directed by a Thai and starring an Englishwoman, will represent Colombia in the 2022 Oscar Awards selection. Perhaps it will allow us to continue learning about ourselves by looking through someone else’s eyes.