How do you create slow cinema at the speed of sound? Apichatpong Weerasethakul delivers a mysterious and hauntingly elusive work with Memoria. The Colombia-set film, the first English/Spanish work from the Thai director, imagines the sound of memory. Such a statement might sound ridiculously pretentious, but this is a Weerasethakul film after all. Memoria echoes in the mind long after the credits roll. It haunts a viewer just as the eerie sound that chases Jessica (Tilda Swinton) throughout the picture. The film marks a rare character-driven work for Weerasethakul and he finds in Swinton the perfect vessel for his sedate and introspective style. 136 minutes of silent screen acting from Swinton is nothing short of a gift.
Memoria is a very quiet picture, but each big bang that haunts Jessica reverberates in a viewer’s mind. She awakens as a deep rattling thunk rouses her from her slumber. In my mind, it sounded like a bird hitting a window. A big bird, mind you—not one of those colourful little things that pepper the Amazon. It sounds more like a toucan, speeding into the glass hard enough to snap its neck in two, but not forceful enough to shatter the glass. As a sleepy Jessica stumbles from her bedroom to her den, there’s no bird on the patio to be found. However, car alarms—many of them—sound from nearby. She blames a nearby construction site. Also incorrect. This noise is not a bird or an overeager crane. It’s a deep and deafening rattle from the core of the Earth.
The Sound of Memories
Jessica, on the other hand, reaches out to Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego) a sound engineer to help recreate the noise. She likens it to a ball—a big and sturdy concrete one. As she and Hernán work together to map and imagine the sound, the ball grows in size, density, and power. Similarly, Swinton masters the dials and controls of her own acoustics. Her voice deepens its tenor and explores the depths of her diaphragm as conjures sonic qualities to articulate what she can’t say in words. This sequence will have movie nuts giddy as Memoria nerds out with the magic of soundscaping. At the mere suggestion of one of Jessica’s descriptions, which echo the prophetic tweetage of @NotTildaSwinton, Hernán summons the rumbling core of the Earth with a few clicks. With a little bass and some reverb, he creates the right density and oomph she remembers.
Throughout this sequence and others, one can’t help but dive into one’s own short-term memory. Jessica’s idea of the bang, for example, sounds nothing like what this reviewer recalled. But memory is faulty. Echoes, even subconscious ones, probably reverberate much different in my head than they do in Swinton’s or Weerasethakul’s noggin. Memoria illustrates this quite humorously in an early scene in which another bang—a smokier and messier one—sends a pedestrian flying onto the pavement and running for his life. It’s not a gunshot, but the backfiring engine of a crappy bus. As the sound chases Jessica like a boogeyman, one begins to identify it as something far more sinister than a wayward toucan or construction site boom.
Death and Stillness
Death hangs over Memoria’s stillness like a dark cloud when Jessica serenely moves through the streets of Medellín. Her work as an orchid dealer introducers her to a researcher. The woman probes the remains of people killed thousands of years ago. She sees evidence of a ritualistic killing as she notes a holed drilled into the woman’s skull. Jessica sticks her finger in it and wiggles it around. How peculiar! Metaphor or not, it’s a dark omen for the power of something burrowing into the mind.
Similarly, Jessica’s sister (Jeanne Balibar) rests in a hospital room recovering from a mysterious illness. Something just overtook her body and she can’t identify the source. All these corridors, empty rooms, and their contemplative stillness provide more chances for the boogie bang to sonically assault Jessica. It finds her everywhere.
Rumble in the Jungle
Memoria takes a crooked turn as Jessica’s travels bring her to the jungle. There, she meets a humble fisherman, also named Hernán (Elkin Díaz). She sits with him as they shoot the breeze. Hernán scales and guts fish, methodically scraping the bass while the bugs whizz around the entrails. Even in the jungle, though, death catches up with Jessica, as does the bang.
Weerasethakul gives pause with some bravura long takes that envelop the viewer in a delicately layered soundscape. Silence has never been so soothing, yet so eerie. This jungle sees the Uncle Boonmee director in his elements. It’s lush, expressive, and haunting. The greenery offers Jessica a respite from the boogie bang, but also a suspenseful, menacing tease. Lingering on Swinton’s expressive face as she and Díaz play out scenes that would be long even by theatrical standards, the film unites Jessica and Hernán in a cosmological harmony. It evokes the sound of souls touching as they mine the sonic memories of the landscape to solve the riddle.
When the answer finally arrives in Memoria, it truly underscores the subjectivity of sound and memory. Punctuate the ensuing silence with applause, dear readers.
Memoria screens at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival and opens later this year.
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