Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria (2021) is the kind of film where, if you were to duck to the bathroom for a few minutes during its 136 minute run time, it would be difficult to provide you with a precis of what you had missed.
You might have missed a slow crescendo and decrescendo of car alarms. Or, perhaps, a family huddled on their driveway in pouring rain. A stray dog crossing the screen as it wanders the streets of Bogota. The protagonist, Jessica (Tilda Swinton), looking tortured as she trails around the city. Jessica at the university hospital visiting her sister. Jessica at the university hospital looking at archaeological remains.
Maybe describing the scenes is less useful than describing the sounds. The theme of this film — the thing you will take away from it — is sound.
There is very little non-diegetic sound. The only times we hear music are when Jessica watches an audio engineer at work and a band play. Otherwise, we are directed via clever sound editing and muted, taupe-heavy colour grading to be attentive to every rustle, chatter or clumsy bump, all the background noises we wouldn’t normally notice.
The plot, too, revolves around sound: one sound in particular. Jessica, a British woman living in Colombia, is running a business involving exotic plants, along with visiting her mysteriously ill sister in hospital. She starts to hear a distinctive but unplaceable sound, which she describes to the audio engineer/therapist/latent love interest Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego) as being like a concrete ball thudding in a metallic tube surrounded by water.
Jessica — and the audience — can hear the sound. Indeed, it is the first and most distinctive sound of the movie. Jessica’s problem is that no one else can hear it. Eerily, it rings through her everyday life while everyone else remains unaffected.
Wrestling with this hallucination, Jessica’s reality unravels. She tries to pinpoint the noise with Hernan. She wanders Bogota searching for it. Eventually, she cannot stop pursuing it.
That the audience can also hear the sound is important here: it means that we are losing our sanity alongside Jessica. Watching Memoria is a disorienting experience; it’s like wandering a foreign city, hungover. Long, sometimes protracted, slightly blurry montages give us a strong sense of the scenery, but we are left asking: why are we here?
In my opinion, by far the strongest part of the film is the last portion, where Jessica heads off into rural Colombia to the construction site of a tunnel in which ancient archaeological remains have been found. Here, she meets a second Hernan (Elkin Diaz): a humble fisherman who claims to remember everything he has ever encountered, and to whom she experiences a strange and metaphysical connection.
These scenes are impactful and oddly haunting. I wish more time was spent here, absorbing the memories of rural Colombia as they are both discovered and destroyed by construction. Hernan — whether a figment of our imagination or not — is a captivating character. The implications of a man with such an expansive and exhaustive memory could have been explored more.
Memoria creates intricate, but unresolved, meditations on madness and the senses. I found it most moving, however, when it lived up to its name: sorting through the narrow lines between history, memory, and imagination.