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Lost City

Film Review: Memoria

17 January 22 words: Oliver Parker

It has 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, but does Memoria get the much-coveted LeftLion seal of approval? Yes, as it turns out...

Director: Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Elkin Díaz, Jeanne Balibar
Running time: 136 minutes

Thematically dense films covering life, death, memories and nature are frequent in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s filmography (such as Palme D'or winning Uncle Boonmie Who Can Recall His Past Lives), and Memoria, his most recent film, doesn’t show any signs of changing that. Memoria is the first feature that Apichatpong (also known as Joe) has filmed outside of his native home of Thailand and his first with an English speaking lead, Tilda Swinton - who is excellent as Jessica, an expat living in Colombia who tries to track down the reason why she has suddenly started hearing a mysterious loud banging noise that no one else seems to be able to hear. As she starts to investigate this sound, she drifts from art exhibitions to restaurants to the rural countryside, and we as viewers join her. We feel her estrangement to her surroundings and learn with her as she tries to make sense of the world around her.

The most noticeable thing about the film is its distinct lack of any soundtrack (except diegetic music), which creates these vast swathes of silence that allow any minute sound to be highlighted. For me, Memoria is very much a film about sound, and how it permeates through the air and affects people in different ways. Of course, this means that the sound design in this film is absolutely astounding. Whether it is the subtle shutter noise of a phone camera in a silent exhibition, car alarms playing in symphony in a deserted car park, or the sound of a chair annoyingly creaking whenever you sit back on it - every little detail is noticeable. These sounds are aided by the ominous thumping that Jessica hears, often appearing at times you don’t expect it. I was starting to think it was going to veer into a horror film but alas, it remains a very soulful experience most of the time.

Contrasting the vibrance of rural nature and the more brooding architecture of the city scapes of Colombia allows Joe to capture some really beautiful moments

The large amount of silence is aided by fairly regular long hanging shots that sometimes last up to five or ten minutes. Joe uses a somewhat classical style of filmmaking with distinctly little motion of the camera - there are some tracking shots but the camera is often very static. This causes each scene to often feel more like a perfectly crafted, moving painting. Using framing and blocking, the director carefully lets the viewer see exactly what he wants you to see but forces the viewer to decide where to focus their attention, causing you to scour the image looking for all the details provided. 

Like in his previous films, the usage of geography and space is excellent. Contrasting the vibrance of rural nature and the more brooding architecture of the city scapes of Colombia allows Joe to capture some really beautiful moments. How he embraces nature and the deeply philosophical and almost spiritual aspect to the film reminds me a lot of Terrence Malick. There are some excellent montage sequences where the narrative fully dissolves into something that is just pure emotional feeling.

Memoria truly is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen - or rather, with big speakers

Memoria is clearly an incredibly personal piece of work; to some, it might even seem impenetrable. But to me, watching something that clearly comes from so deep within a person is a very enriching experience. There are exchanges of dialogue that feel so abstract and idiosyncratic that I felt like I was watching a David Lynch film. With the themes of memories and dreams being so crucial to not only this film, but all of Joe’s filmography, I think the Lynch comparison is well deserved. Both draw their ideas from the concept of collective dreams and memories. Ultimately, it really is hard to discuss the meaning or even the premise of this film; it feels totally alien but is also incredibly grounded at the same time. 

This is a must watch for anyone who enjoys slow, meditative and thought provoking cinema, or releases that do not hold your hand and do not explain to you the plot or how to feel. My friends and I all walked out of the screening wondering and discussing how we felt, what certain scenes meant. I am still contemplating the ideas presented in the film now. Memoria is a movie that can never be explained definitively by any individual person. Everyone who watches it will take away something different from the next, and that something will most likely be different to the director's original intentions. But art is at its best when it has an infinite number of interpretations. Now showing at places like Broadway, Memoria truly is a film that needs to be seen on the big screen - or rather, with big speakers. 

Did you know? In an unconventional move, art-house film distributor Neon is releasing Memoria "from city to city, theater to theater, week by week, playing in front of only one solitary audience at any given time."

Memoria is showing in select cinemas now.

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