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Memoria review – wondrous rumination on power, trauma and memory

Tilda Swinton is exceptional in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's funny, mediative tale about an expat drawn to a strange sound in Colombia

It begins with an overture of silence, and then a bang. Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a titan of the arthouse scene, winner of the Palme d’Or for 2010’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, ventures for the first time outside of his native Thailand to deliver Memoria, a film that’s as searching, meditative, and funny as any of his previous six features.

Jennifer (Tilda Swinton), a botanist, is drawn from Scotland to Colombia, where her sister Agnes (Jeanne Balibar) lies asleep in a hospital bed. Agnes has married Juan (Daniel Giménez Cachob), who clues her in on an archeological dig uncovering an incident from a century ago, when a colonialist attempted to burrow through the Amazon jungle. But almost immediately, Jennifer is plagued by a bang – a pounding, bassy slap that shocks her awake at night, and makes her jump during dinner. Thus, the games begin.

Memoria fusses over recurrences and confusions. While Agnes initially gives a revealing theory on the nature of her illness, the next time Jennifer brings it up, her sister behaves as though it never happened. Later, a character disappears entirely, sending Jennifer on a futile chase for clues. With a hat tip to Antonioni, Jennifer’s investigation of the strange sound even finds her attempting to replicate it, with the help of a young and potentially flirtatious audio engineer named Hernan (Juan Pablo Urrego).

Weerasethaku is often erroneously compared to David Lynch on the basis of their dream logic. Though Memoria leans into the supernatural with glee, comparing two filmmakers of such distinct style is a fool’s game. Closer, though, is their shared employment of rumbling soundscapes that draw attention to the urban, the mechanical, and the unnatural.

The invisible forces that influence our lives are a common theme for Weerasethaku, and his choice to shoot in Colombia permits him to take a different view on the battle between indigenous life and colonial forces than his common recurrence of the military junta in Thailand. Colombia’s military are everywhere in Memoria, lining the road from Bogotá to the jungle, where Jennifer joins that archeological dig. But as possible explanations for the thumping sound are floated, we are delivered a sightless battle that tunes her, and us, into closer communion with the world.

With the star power of Tilda Swinton, Weerasethaku is able to centre the film around a single, driving force. Swinton is a singularly malleable figure in contemporary cinema, a performer who gives herself over entirely to the film at hand. When employed by a Wes Anderson, Coen brother, or any director that makes her wear a wig, she can be grating and twee. For a director like Apichatpong, who tempers his actors down to a low twitch, her unique, cat-like face becomes a planet of minute gestures.

The wonder of Memoria, though, is that none of this is hard work. Moments of broad humour, from those repeated misunderstandings, to one liners and glimmers of slapstick, means this rumination on power, trauma, and memory (it’s in the title) slips by. As the film develops, the revelations of its mysteries only lead to countless more. This unexpected concurrence of director and star gives way to a minor classic.

Memoria was screened as part of the BFI London Film Festival 2021. It will be released in UK cinemas on 14 January 2021.

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