On Weerasethakul’s MEMORIA (2021)

by Jacqueline Valencia

Jessica (Tilda Swinton) is a Scottish orchid farmer living in Medellin, Colombia. One night she is suddenly awakened by an unsettling, “Bang!”. The camera sits still watching her pondering, maybe waiting for the sound to happen again. The rustle of leaves, her breath, even the buzz of the light fills the quiet theatre, as the audience waits too.

She travels to Bogota to visit her ailing sister in the hospital. They exchange in the language of dreams. As her sister falls asleep, Jessica quietly watches her and thinks. The camera lingers and our focus is directed to the noises around them. Jessica wanders, meets experts of archeology, poetry, and sound. As she continues to explore the city, there are moments of pause, Jessica sits still, while night life stirs. The sound that disturbs her cuts randomly through her days.

Memoria is a menagerie of sound production and a meditative piece exploring meaning in moments. Jessica works with a sound engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), to help reproduce the sound. They grow close as he explains the way he explores feeling through music. He eventually disappears and Jessica is left lost again, walking aimlessly again into farms and forests. She encounters an older man, also named Hernán (Elkin Díaz). He remembers everything and through those memories, Jessica finds an inexplicable mess of messages and possible explanations for the sound and her search.

I’ll watch anything Tilda Swinton is in and the combination of her working with Apichatpong Weerasethakul was too exciting to miss. Swinton’s performance comes entirely through her expressions and slow hypnotic movements in the film. Weerasethakul direction and keen eye to detail, enhance the settings around Swinton. Jessica approaches an abandoned patio in a building, the rain falling in it becomes a moment full of possibility and mysterious reflection. Throughout the film we don’t know exactly what characters are thinking, although they often speak in a sort of poetic prose, but we are made to fill in thought and emotion in the film’s stillness. There’s a deep sense of isolation that permeates throughout the film, one that Weerasethakul infused in most of his work. He treats each character like a planet, spinning around its surroundings, making tenuous connections with other celestial bodies.

While most of the world has been moving past the pandemic, while there is still a pandemic, some still live in a state of lockdown. The growing normal is too keep busy and connected to fight off that feeling of loneliness many endured for several years in sort of quarantine from each other. Weerasethakul’s slow methodical filmmaking is an interesting way of exploring the spaces that memory and trauma took up during the pandemic, especially since the world continues without stopping to grieve what has been lost. Almost like a sound we don’t want to hear.

It was 2015 when I last interviewed Weerasethakul, for Cemetery of Splendour, and back then he’d mentioned he was flying to Colombia soon to research for a new project. My parents are Colombian so it was kind of neat to talk to a director about things he might be interested in while there. Fast-forward to 2022, and I hadn’t seen a film in a theatre in three years. Watching the end product on a big screen felt like I was time traveling and memories of my own filled my own viewing of Memoria.

* MUBI will be streaming Memoria exclusively from August 5 in Germany, Italy, Turkey, India, Brazil, Mexico, Argentina, Chile & more from August 5.

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