Review: ‘The Eternal Memory,’ starring Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora

February 4, 2023

by Carla Hay

Augusto Góngora and Paulina Urrutia in “The Eternal Memory” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“The Eternal Memory”

Directed by Maite Alberdi

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Chile, the documentary film “The Eternal Memory” features an all-Chilean group of people representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: The documentary chronicles several months in the lives of former actress/politician Paulina Urrutia and her husband Augusto Góngora, a former TV journalist who covered Chile’s civil unrest in the 1970s and 1980s, and who now has Alzheimer’s disease.

Culture Audience: “The Eternal Memory” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction stories about couples who have a partner living with Alzheimer’s disease and an upper-middle-class perspective of Chilean history.

Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora in “The Eternal Memory” (Photo courtesy of MTV Documentary Films)

“The Eternal Memory” is a beautiful but slow-paced love story between two Chilean spouses who are living with the husband’s dementia. This intimate documentary shows paralells of the couple remembering their romance while not wanting to forget the sins and suffering of Chile under the rule of dictator Augusto Pinochet. Viewers of “The Eternal Memory” who are expecting a lot of drama in this movie will be disappointed or will have their patience tested. But for viewers willing to immerse themselves in this couple’s world, “The Eternal Memory” can be a thoughtful and emotionally moving experience.

Directed by Maite Alberdi, “The Eternal Memory” was filmed for an unspecified period of time in the early 2020s. The movie is a combination of home-video footage filmed for the documentary and archival footage from other sources. “The Eternal Memory” had its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival, where it won the grand jury prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition.

Alberdi previously directed the Oscar-nominated 2020 documentary “The Mole Agent,” which was about a Chilean senior citizen who was hired to check himself into a group retirement home, in order to find out more about the residents’ emotional well-being. “The Mole Agent” has themes of old age and the loneliness that elderly people can experience when they lose their memories or feel neglected. These themes are also in “The Eternal Memory,” but there’s a broader and more political context to the documentary that “The Mole Agent” did not have.

The two spouses at the center of “The Eternal Memory” are former actress-turned-politician Paulina “Pauli” Urrutia and former TV news journalist Augusto Góngora. The documentary shows repeatedly how devoted they are to each other, and they still have a romantic spark between them after being together for many years. Urrutia and Góngora became a couple in 1997, and they got married in 2016. Urrutia and Góngora have no children together, but some of the couple’s archival home videos in the documentary show them spending time with Góngora’s children Javiera and Cristóbal, from his previous marriage to Patricia Naut.

Born in 1969, Urrutia pursued an acting career since she was a child, eventually landing roles in Chilean movies and TV shows in the 1980s and 1990s. In the 21st century, she segued into politics. She was elected general secretary and president of the Chilean Actors Union (Sidarte) in 2001. And in 2006, she was appointed president of the National Council of Culture and the Arts.

Góngora also spent most of his life in the public eye. Born in 1952, Góngora is best known for his work as a TV news journalist in Chile, where he was a leader of the underground “Teleanálisis” newscast in the 1980s. He was a director and executive producer at Televisión Nacional de Chile (TVN) from 1980 to 2010. He also became a documentary filmmaker, with credits that include “The Weapons of Peace,” “Forbidden Children” and “The Seed of the Wind.”

In addition, Góngora dabbled in acting. A scene in the documentary shows Urrutia and Góngora reminiscing about the late filmmaker/actor Raúl Ruiz, who acted with Góngora in the 1997 miniseries “La Recta Provincia,” the only on-screen acting role that Góngora ever had. In “The Eternal Memory” scene, Urrutia asks Góngora if he remembers if Ruiz is alive or dead. Góngora says that he knows Ruiz is dead, and he remembers that Ruiz did not want to die.

Góngora was known for delivering hard-hitting investigations of the country’s civil unrest during the 1973 to 1990 reign of right-wing military dictator Augusto Pinochet. During this turbulent era in Chilean history, more than 3,000 people went missing or were found murdered. Thousands of children were orphaned. A scene in the “The Eternal Memory” shows Góngora and Urrutia morosely remembering a mutual friend named Jose Manuel Parada, who was kidnapped during the Pinochet regime.

Having to report these atrocities and other tragedies left a deep impact on Góngora, who seems to still be haunted by some of these memories. In addition to archival news footage of Góngora on the job as a TV news journalist, there’s footage of Góngora speaking about social injustice while promoting the non-fiction book “Chile: La Memoria Prohibida,” which he co-authored with other journalists. (“Chile: La Memoria Prohibida” means “Chile: The Forbidden Memory” in Spanish.)

Archival footage of Góngora shows that he was one of the first TV news journalists in Chile who advocated for citizen video journalism, where everyday citizens who are not professional journalists filmed their own footage that mainstream TV news would later used and give credit to these non-journalists who filmed the footage. Long before social media and viral videos ever existed, citizen video journalism was a form of journalism that started to increase in 1980s, when portable video cameras became more affordable to the average person.

Góngora is seen commenting in some 1980s footage, where she shares his thoughts about citizen video journalism: “We had the wonderful task of displaying the images of a country that was invisible in Chile, but a country that existed. We started giving an everyday version that did not appear on any Chilean TV station.”

There’s some archival footage of Urrutia when she was a politician, but the tone of “The Forgotten Memory” seems to be that the work that Góngora did was much more important than Urrutia’s work. Góngora’s career gets most of the screen time in the segments that show Góngora’s and Urrutia’s work lives before they retired. Urrutia is now Góngora’s full-time caretaker. If she has any help inside the home, it’s not shown in the documentary.

“The Forgotten Memory” has an abundance of everyday footage of Urrutia and Góngora at home talking about their lives. The movie opens with Góngora waking up in bed and remembering his name but not remembering who Urrutia is. She has to remind him that she is his wife, and she used to be an actress. She also tells him that he has two siblings and that his children’s names are Cristóbal and Javiera.

Urrutia and Góngora are shown doing couple activities, such as going for walks together and having meals together. She sometimes has to feed him because he can’t feed himself. During their walks outside, Góngora occasionally expresses mild frustration that he can’t walk as fast and as nimbly as he could when he was younger. They are physically affectionate with each other, such as when Urrutia lovingly dries Góngora with a towel after he gets out of a shower, or when they hold each other and kiss like partners who are best friends and in love.

Some of the most emotionally tender moments in the documentary are when Góngora is fully aware of who Urrutia is and expresses love and gratitude for her being in his life. In a scene where the spouses are having dinner together, he tells Urrutia in an appreciative manner, “You have given me so many things.” He also calls her “beautiful” while she silently sheds tears and smiles. In another scene, Góngora supportively watches in the audience when Urrutia performs on stage for a local theater group.

Through it all, Urrutia is extraordinarily patient, kind and emotionally strong. The documentary never shows her having any tearful meltdowns, expressing fear, or admitting that things can be sad and overwhelming when living with someone who has dementia. In that respect, “The Forgotten Memory” unfortunately gives the impression that it’s glossing over any emotional stress that Urrutia is no doubt having from being a caretaker of spouse with dementia.

When “The Forgotten Memory” tries to make Urrutia look so saint-like, it actually becomes a flaw in the documentary, which seems to leave out uncomfortable truths about the emotional toll and sometimes resentment that can build up when someone has the entire responsibility of taking care of a loved one with dementia. No one is realistically that saint-like all the time. Because the original footage in “The Forgotten Memory” is filmed cinéma vérité-style, there are no “talking head” interviews to provide outside analysis of what is going on with this couple.

Perhaps in an effort to give the image that she’s a “superwoman” spouse, Urrutia doesn’t really open up about any inner turmoil she is feeling, or her thoughts on preparing for the inevitable end of Góngora’s life. In front of the camera, she is upbeat but very emotionally guarded in other ways. The documentary would have been better and perhaps more helpful to people going through similar situations if Urrutia had been candid about her vulnerabilities of feeling emotional pain, doubt and hopelessness.

“The Eternal Memory” looks more honest in the uncensored moments when Góngora starts rambling about his frustrations. There’s a scene where Góngora gets very distraught because he knows he’s losing his memory, and he laments the loss of friends. He also says he doesn’t want to go on like this any more and that he feels alone. Urrutia’s response is to hug him and assure him that he’s not alone.

What remains unspoken but is seen in the documentary is that Urrutia and Góngora are very much alone during most of their time at home. The documentary doesn’t really show them having any visitors on a regular basis. It’s never fully explored how the couple feels about being “abandoned” by the friends who faded away from the couple’s lives.

One can imagine that the couple had plenty of friends when Urrutia and Góngora had elite positions that gave Urrutia and Góngora a certain amount of fame. Where are those friends now? Observant viewers will notice that this is the type of loss that is perhaps too painful for Urrutia and Góngora to talk about at length on camera.

It’s implied but not said out loud that these former friends were too uncomfortable with seeing Góngora living with Alzheimer’s disease. In one of the movie’s emotionally touching scenes, Góngora mournfully says out loud to himself, “No one asks me, ‘Remember when’ anymore.” As for Góngora’s adult children, they are not in the documentary’s new footage, and there is no explanation for their absence.

Urrutia and Góngora might feel a certain sense of isolation and abandonment from people who used to be close to them, but “The Eternal Memory” wonderfully shows how these two spouses have each other in a loving and emotionally healthy relationship. In the documentary, Góngora tells Urrutia that he doesn’t want to live for many more years. Whatever happens to this husband and wife, they both have had lives well-lived, with “The Eternal Documentary” being an impressive testament to their enduring love. The movie doesn’t tell the whole story of their relationship, but what is shown is meaningful and inspiring.

UPDATE: MTV Documentary Films will release “The Eternal Memory” in New York City on August 11, 2023, and in Los Angeles on August 18, 2023.

Review: ‘The Mole Agent,’ starring Sergio Chamy, Rómulo Aitken, Marta Olivares, Berta Ureta, Zoila González, Petronila Abarca and Rubira Olivares

April 19, 2021

by Carla Hay

Sergio Chamy and Rómulo Aitken in “The Mole Agent” (Photo by Alvaro Reyes/Gravitas Ventures)

“The Mole Agent”

Directed by Maite Alberdi

Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in San Francisco, Chile, the documentary film “The Mole Agent” features an all-Chilean group of people who are connected in some way the San Francisco Nursing Home.

Culture Clash: A widower in his 80s is hired to be a spy in the nursing home to find out if there is abuse or neglect in this residential facility.

Culture Audience: “The Mole Agent” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in non-fiction stories about life in retirement homes, even if some of the movie’s scenes look very staged and contrived.

Berta “Bertita” Ureta and Sergio Chamy in “The Mole Agent” (Photo courtesy of Gravitas Ventures)

“The Mole Agent” offers an entertaining and emotionally moving portrait of humanity in a Chilean retirement home. However, the “spy” aspect of the story seems as contrived and cutesy as some of the documentary’s scenes. There are several parts of the movie that look more like a scripted dramedy instead of a genuine cinéma vérité documentary. But if viewers are willing to enjoy the ride, they’ll be charmed by the people in the movie and the film’s overall life-affirming messages.

Directed by Maite Alberdi, “The Mole Agent” takes place primarily at the San Francisco Retirement Home in San Francisco, Chile. It’s a living facility that houses about 50 to 60 people (mostly women), and almost all the residents are over the age of 70. It’s here that an “undercover” investigation takes place that serves as the basis of this movie.

In the beginning of “The Mole Agent,” it’s explained that a daughter of one of the retirement home’s residents wants to investigate the retirement home to see if there is any secret abuse and neglect taking place there. How does it get investigated? An elderly man is recruited from the public to check into the facility as a resident for three months.

The movie shows the newspaper ad that was placed to look for this would-be spy or “mole agent.” The description reads: “Elderly male needed, retired between 80 and 90 years old, independent, discreet and competent with technology.” A man identified as Rómulo Aitken is shown interviewing some job applicants.

Is Aitken a private investigator? An actor? The movie never says, but he has the role of hiring and training the person who gets the job. There’s a montage of elderly men being interviewed to comical effect. When they’re told what the nature of the job is, they don’t seem to have a problem with spying, but a few have a problem with the technology requirement of the job. One man, whether he knows it or not, disqualifies himself when he says that he thinks the Internet is useless.

The person who ends up getting hired is an affable 83-year-old widower from Santiago named Sergio Chamy. He explains that his wife died a few months earlier and he’s an independent person who doesn’t have to consult anyone about where he wants to live. “I’m the one who makes decisions about myself,” Chamy says.

After he’s hired, there are the inevitable scenes played for laughs of Aitken showing the technology-deficient Chamy how to use FaceTime and WhatsApp on an iPhone. This newly appointed “spy” is also given a pair of eyeglasses that are equipped with a surveillance camera. Some of the movie’s scenes include footage taken from these spy eyeglasses.

And he’s even given a magnifying glass, as if the filmmakers want to make him look like a Sherlock Holmes type of character. Chamy actually never needs to use the magnifying glass at the retirement home, but it’s amusing and eye-catching to see him test out the magnifying glass. There are several scenes like this in the movie that seem staged for optics, rather than chronicling any real detective work.

Before he leaves to check into the retirement home, Chamy and his adult daughter Dalal meet with Aitken to get any questions answered. Dalal is concerned about the legalities of what her father is doing, but Aitken assures her that the filmmaking crew has permission to film in the retirement home. Aitken tells them that the filmmakers have told the retirement home that they are making a documentary about Chamy. However, based on the level of access that the filmmaking crew had in several private rooms of other residents, it seems pretty obvious that certain people who worked at the retirement home knew exactly what this documentary was about ahead of time.

During this meeting, Chamy reassures his daughter that checking into this retirement home is something he wants to do because it will help him take his mind off of his widower grief. He says that this investigative assignment will be “mentally tiring but mentally liberating,” because he won’t be “thinking of your mother all the time.” He and Dalal get a little bit choked up with emotions when he mentions the late matriarch of the family.

Chamy is told that the client’s mother in the retirement home is named Sonia Perez. He is tasked with keeping an eye on Perez to see if she is being treated well. The residential rooms have sheets of paper taped to the entry doors with the name of each person who lives in the room. And so, with “Pink Panther”-like music as part of the movie’s score (which was written by Vincent van Warmerdam), the movie shows Chamy going from room to room, looking for Sonia Perez’s name on the front of doors.

“The Mole Agent” makes it look like he can’t find her for at least two or three days, but the editing of this movie doesn’t make it clear exactly how long it really took. Aitken tells Chamy that he shouldn’t ask any of the retirement home staffers about Perez because it would arouse suspicion. And so, Chamy asks some residents if they know where Perez’s room is and they claim they’ve never heard of her. It’s all just leads to more contrived-looking series of scenes of Chamy lurking in hallways and taking notes.

And then there’s the inevitable moment when he’s snooping around and someone suddenly comes out of a room and startles him. And so, he quickly pretends that he wasn’t looking at the names of people on the doors. If he could’ve done some stereotypical “I’m just minding my own business” whistling, the filmmakers probably would’ve loved it. Considering that Chamy has no real experience as a detective, any “investigating” he does looks purely for show. There are parts of this movie that look like Chamy knew in advance that he had to do some acting to create footage that the filmmakers could use.

“The Mole Agent” makes it look like every day he’s in the retirement home, Chamy writes notes in a journal and calls in to Aitken to give a summary of what he found out that day. He’s also told that he has to this report is a daily requirement for the assignment. Cue the scenes of Chamy fumbling to upload some of the secret photos and videos that he took in the retirement phone.

Chamy eventually finds Perez, but it turns out that she’s very aloof and doesn’t like to talk very much. She rebuffs his attempts to have conversations with her. The movie then turns into something else: Chamy ends up becoming friendly with and emotionally attached to other residents at the retirement home. All of his new friends happen to be women.

The women he forms the closest bonds with are

  • Berta “Bertita” Ureta, who makes it known as soon as she sees Chamy that she’s attracted to him.
  • Marta Olivares, who has a child-like demeanor and a mischievous side to her.
  • Petronila “Petita” Abarca, who likes to read poetry as a way to connect with other people.
  • Rubira Olivares, who shows signs of depression and other mental-health issues.
  • Zoila González, who is very religious and says that she often talks to Jesus Christ.

Over the course of the movie, Chamy acts less like a detective and more like a personal counselor/therapist to the women. He has a positive and upbeat attitude that lifts the residents’ spirits. And he is tolerant and understanding of any quirks that they might have.

For example, Oliveras is in such an infantile state of mind that she still thinks her mother is still alive. The retirement home’s staffers indulge this delusion by calling on Oliveras on the phone and pretending to be her mother, so Oliveras won’t feel her family has forgotten about her. Chamy plays along with this ruse too, because he knows that it’s the type of lie that helps Oliveras cope with her loneliness. He’s also patient with her when she plays little pranks on him, such as stealing items out of his pockets.

Viewers will amused at the way Ureta turns up the charm in her flirtation with Chamy. During his first or second day at the retirement home, he’s eating by himself in the cafeteria-styled dining room. She goes over to him and gives him her dessert.

Later, they have a private conversation alone together and Ureta doesn’t even try to hide her delight when she finds out he’s a recent widower. At one point in the movie, she blurts in a half-joking way, while Chamy and other people are in the room, that the retirement home would be an ideal place for a wedding. During a dance party at the home, Ureta tells Chamy that she’s in love with him, and he eventually tells her if he’s interested in pursuing a romance with her or not.

And what about the detective work that Chamy was hired to do? The most meaningful parts of the movie aren’t Chamy’s spying shenanigans but the more genuine moments that show how Chamy helps the residents cope with the emotional pain of feeling lonely and abandoned. When he sees firsthand that some of the home’s residents don’t have anyone visiting them, it makes him appreciate how lucky he is to have a loving family.

In the movie, Chamy says that has two daughters, one son and five grandchildren. Chamy turned 84 years old in the retirement home while filming this documentary. Dalal, Chamy’s son and a granddaughter and grandson visit him on his birthday. At the birthday party for Chamy, the staffers surprise him by having a singer serenade him, and he is moved to tears. He might have checked into the facility to try to find abuse and neglect, but by the end of this story, he finds a sense of renewed hope about life that the movie obviously wants viewers to feel too.

Gravitas Ventures released “The Mole Agent” in select U.S. cinemas on August 28, 2020, and on digital and VOD on September 1, 2020. PBS’s “POV” series premiered “The Mole Agent” on January 25, 2021. The movie is also available for streaming on Hulu.

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