Memoria

The story of how Memoria is being released is as fascinating as the film itself. Distributor NEON announced that it will take director Apichatpong Weerasethakul's latest on the road, allowing it to play in one theater in one town for a week, then moving it to one theater in a different town for a week, and so on. They plan to keep this up for years. It will not ever be made available to stream online or purchase on DVD. That's an unusual strategy, yet also one that's perfect for an unusual movie. You don't so much watch Memoria as experience it. Releasing it in this manner helps set the stage, letting people know they need to surrender their typical expectations when walking through the doors of a cinema.

The central figure is Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a woman in Bogota to visit her ailing sister. She keeps hearing a loud banging noise inside her head. Troubled by that development, Jessica attempts to figure out what it is. Her first stop is a recording studio, where a technician named Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego) attempts to recreate the noise with his sound effects library, based on her description. When she goes back to see him later on, no one in the studio has any clue who he is. Jessica also meets archeologist Agnes (Jeanne Balibar), who's studying human remains found within a construction site. She goes to visit Agnes at an excavation, but wanders off and encounters a fish scaler, also named Hernan (but played by Elkin Diaz). Eventually the condition allows her to perceive memories (hence the title) that may or may not be hers.

Memoria is a difficult movie to explain because it doesn't have a conventional plot. Like Jessica, we aren't sure what's going on – and putting us in her shoes is generally the point. Everything is about mood and tone. Weerasethakul lets events unfold in very long, static shots that last for several minutes. The defining scene, for example, is the one between Jessica and the second Hernan. The first fifteen minutes are them talking and discussing the nature of memories. Then we watch her watching him sleep for about five minutes. The sequence wraps up after that.

Although I'm sure that sounds boring, it oddly isn't. In staging Memoria this way, Weerasethakul is encouraging us to study the frame, to notice little details that we otherwise would pay no attention to – the way grass blows in the wind, the objects on a table, an area of a wall where the paint has chipped off, etc. Just as Jessica tries to tune in to what's happening in her head, we try to tune in to the images onscreen. All of us are seeking stability amid a feeling of disconnectedness. Or, in other words, we're invited to become her for 136 minutes. Obviously, the approach won't be for everyone. If you can open your mind to the possibilities, though, the film is rewarding in how it forces you to recognize the importance of drowning out noise and centering yourself.

Tilda Swinton is the key to making it work. What I love about her as an actress is that she can go both ways. Set her loose, as Wes Anderson recently did in The French Dispatch, and you get something creative and unpredictable. Ask her to be restrained and she'll go deep into emotion, delivering a performance that oozes authenticity. That's what she does here. The movie doesn't have tons of dialogue, meaning she has to convey the majority of what Jessica is feeling through facial expressions and body language. Swinton is onscreen the entire time, and there's not a single second that feels false. The actress draws us in to Jessica's situation, earning our compassion every step of the way.

So what does it all mean? Depends on what you bring with you. Memoria offers no concrete answers. The film is a Rorschach test. A few signposts exist to point you in certain directions, but different viewers will have different interpretations. For me, the big indicator is when the second, hermitic Hernan tells Jessica “experiences are harmful.” It's kind of true. Live a full life and you will go through hardship somewhere along the way. We all have that in common. And the memories of those hardships tie us together with others, either because they understand what we've been through, or they support us, or they come along at just the right time to bring much-needed healing.

You might have an entirely different reading. Neither of us would be wrong. Such is the beauty of this stirring, unconventional work.


out of four

Memoria is rated PG for some thematic elements and brief language. The running time is 2 hours and 16 minutes.