Review: ‘Memoria’ (2021), starring Tilda Swinton

January 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Tilda Swinton in “Memoria” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

“Memoria” (2021)

Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Some language in Spanish and Italian with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Colombia, the dramatic film “Memoria” features a predominantly white and Latino cast of characters representing the middle-class and working-class.

Culture Clash: A Scottish woman, who’s visiting her sister in Bogotá, Colombia, tries to find out why she is hearing mysterious “sonic boom” sounds that no one else seems to hear.

Culture Audience: “Memoria” will appeal mainly to people who are fans of writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, star Tilda Swinton and abstract movies about memories.

Tilda Swinton and Juan Pablo Urrego in “Memoria” (Photo courtesy of Neon)

Here’s some advice to anyone who watches “Memoria,” written and directed by writer/director Apichatpong Weerasethakul: Watch this movie if you think there’s no chance that you’ll fall asleep. Weerasethakul is known for his slow-paced and meditative films that aren’t traditionally structured in three acts. Instead, his movies flow in a dream-like pace that might bore viewers looking for a more straightforward and obvious approach to storytelling. “Memoria,” which screened at the 2021 Cannes Film Festival (where it won the Jury Prize) and 2021 New York Film Festival, is Weerasethakul’s first movie that’s not in the Thai language.

Despite having a pace that can induce drowsiness, “Memoria” is worth a look for anyone interested in a densely layered story about how memories affect the way that people live their lives. There’s also a sci-fi/mystery element that adds a level of intrigue to the movie. With a total running time of 136 minutes, “Memoria” requires patience and a certain amount of curiosity to see how the movie is going to end. “Memoria” was selected as Colombia’s Best International Feature Film category entry for the 2022 Academy Awards, but the movie didn’t make the shortlist.

The central character in “Memoria” is Scottish botanist Jessica Holland, whose specialty is orchids. Jessica lives in Medellín, Colombia, and has gone to Bogotá, Colombia, to visit her sister Karen Holland (played by Agnes Brekke), who is in a hospital because of an unnamed respiratory illness. During one of Jessica’s visits to Karen in the hospital, Karen confides to Jessica that she’s been having dreams about a dog that she rescued that’s in Karen’s home. Karen says half-jokingly, “The dog has put a curse on me.”

Jessica asks Karen if Karen wants Jessica to check on the dog. It’s somewhat of an odd question to ask, because Karen has two people who live with her: Her partner Juan Ospina (played by Daniel Giménez Cacho), who’s a college professor, and their son Mateo Ospina (played by Jerónimo Barón), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Eventually, Karen recovers from her illness and is released from the hospital.

The movie’s opening scene shows that strange things are happening around Jessica. She wakes up suddenly in a dark room, as if she was startled by a nightmare. Outside a run-down building that’s a billiards hall, several cars parked outside have their alarms start to operate at the same time. And then, when Jessica arrives in Bogotá, she hears a loud thumping noise, similar to a brief sonic boom, at random times and in random places.

Hearing this mysterious noise has caused Jessica to have trouble sleeping. It becomes so disruptive to her life that she becomes consumed with finding out what is causing the noise, which no one else around her seems to hear. Is Jessica mentally ill or does this noise really exist outside of her mind?

Jessica’s quest to solve this mystery leads her to a variety of people and places. Some of these encounters appear to be more random than others. The movie doesn’t show it in obvious ways, but all these encounters are somehow connected.

Through a mutual friend, Jessica is put in touch with a sound engineer named Hernán Bedoya (played by Juan Pablo Urrego), who is asked to try to find the sound that Jessica keeps hearing. Jessica visits Hernán at his studio, where he has a library of sounds and sound effects that he plays for Jessica to find the sound that best matches the sonic thump that she keeps hearing. At one point during these sessions, Jessica describes this mystery sound as “like a rumble from the core of the earth.”

Jessica’s encounters also include a meeting with an archeologist named Agnes Cerkinsky (played by Jeanne Balibar), who shows Jessica some bones in a science lab. Agnes tells Jessica that the bones are about 6,000 years old, and she asks Jessica to guess the gender of the person whose bones are on the table. Jessica incorrectly guesses that it was a man. Agnes tells Jessica that the bones are actually of a young girl, whose skull has a hole drilled into it to it, which was probably an ancient ritual to release evil spirits.

Jessica also ends up in a jungle spending time with a middle-aged man named Hernán (played by Elkin Díaz), who is scaling a fish when they first meet. Somehow, Jessica gives him some of her Xanax pills. Hernán passes out and appears to be dead. But then, Hernán regains consciousness. Jessica asks him how heaven is. He says, “Fine.” Jessica tells Hernán that she’s sorry for giving him the pills.

And it gets weirder. There’s a dream sequence of Jessica hiding underneath a bed with other people. She describes the dream later by saying, “They searched for us all night.” Later, the Hernán from the jungle tells Jessica that he can read memories, and he makes this comment: “I’m like a hard disk. She’s like an antenna.”

“Memoria” has several scenes meant to confuse viewers on whether or not Jessica is delusional. When she goes back to sound engineer Hernán’s studio after her first visit, she’s told that no one of that name and description has ever worked at the studio. Observant viewers will remember that sound engineer Hernán told Jessica in their conversation that he’s in a band called the Death of Delusion Ensemble.

Another scene where Jessica appears to be delusional is when she has dinner with Agnes, Mateo and Juan. During the dinner conversation, Jessica mentions someone whom she says died the previous year. However, Agnes and Mateo insist that Jessica is wrong and the person she’s talking about is still alive. Jessica reacts with disbelief because she’s sure she’s correct.

Jessica also visits a psychologist named Dr. Constanza (played by Constanza Gutiérrez) to tell him about her problem with this mysterious noise. Dr. Constanza advises her that in high elevations, people sometimes can hear a “pop”-sounding noise. “It’s not a pop,” Jessica says to Dr. Constanza about the sound that she keeps hearing.

“Memoria” is not the type of movie that will be remembered for its acting. The cast members give capable performances, but this movie doesn’t really have any big personalities and snappy banter where the cast members can flex their acting talent. The main attraction in “Memoria” is to try to figure out what the movie is trying to say with this mystery of the thumping noise.

“Memoria” eventually reveals why Jessica keeps hearing this noise and how it’s connected to the overall story. There are clues along the way, but they are often subtle or obscure. If there are viewers who prefer movies that reveal clues in more obvious and literal ways, then those viewers probably won’t like “Memoria” very much. But for anyone who’s up for the challenge of watching a surreal and slow-paced mystery with some observations of humanity and Colombian history, then “Memoria” might be an interesting and unique viewing experience.

Neon is releasing “Memoria” in the U.S. in one movie theater per city in a cinema tour of the movie, beginning in New York City on December 26, 2021. Sovereign Films released “Memoria” in several cinemas in the United Kingdom and Ireland on January 14, 2022. The filmmakers have announced that “Memoria” is being released only in cinemas.

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