“Memoria”, 2021, directed by Apichatong Weerasthakul — 5/5 stars
It’s not very often that we find films that are so endlessly layered, skillfully crafted, and stylistically unique as “Memoria.” Director Apichatong Weerasthakul isn’t exactly renowned or even especially prolific — he’s only directed seven feature length films in the past two decades — but his work has become extremely popular with very specific audiences, notably critics on the international festival circuit. His films consistently earn an award at the Cannes Film Festival in France, and his 2010 film “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” won the Palme d’Or at Cannes that year. His most recent project, the dense, abstruse and sometimes painfully slow “Memoria”, is easily one of the best films of the past year. Made in collaboration with British actress Tilda Swinton, who stars and also served as an executive producer, “Memoria” is a film that watches scenes from afar, poses monumental questions and places the viewer in beautifully constructed landscapes, both sonically and visually.
Within the first moments of the film, which are shrouded in near-darkness, a colossal, booming noise is heard. It’s truly a frightening sound, akin to a meteor striking the earth or a cannon being fired. The sound is so startlingly loud and so stunningly brief it sends the viewer into a daze. This daze will last for the entirety of the film, especially as it becomes continually disjointed and conceptual. The film’s protagonist Jessica (Swinton) acts as a disoriented vessel for the viewer, granting the audience omniscience into her perception of the world as she tries to make sense of the fear, confusion and unease she feels throughout the story.
The loud sound appears more than a few times after those opening moments, and it quickly becomes clear that it is something happening exclusively inside her head; it’s not something anyone else can hear. This initial premise is illuminated by Apichatong’s real-life experience; he struggled with a condition known as “exploding head syndrome,” a painless psychological disorder that causes its victims to hear extremely loud noises at unexplained times. While this partially helps explain some of the film’s structure — Jessica slowly learns to come to peace with the loud noises that plague her mind — “Memoria” is very far from the kind of film that ever wants to be fully understood.
The film’s visual style can immediately be identified as unorthodox, with nearly every shot throughout focusing on wider scenes without a hint of motion from the tripod-mounted camera; the lens almost feels like a stranger watching from afar, unfamiliar with the details of the characters’ backgrounds or intricacies. This is emphasized even more strongly when characters step out of view or when sources of sounds are not seen. In one moment, Swinton sits in chair just out of frame, and while her presence is still relevant in the scene and the dialogue continues, her face cannot be seen, making the viewer acutely aware of the role of the sound and the camera’s limitations.
An already disjointed plot becomes increasingly peripheral as Jessica seeks out more explanations for the sounds she hears. As time goes on, the film’s dialogue delves further into ideas about faith, death and connection to the natural world. Imagery of decaying human skeletons and brutalist cement architecture are countered with lush jungles and beautiful, ethereal skies that envelop the viewer. It’s truly a poetic film that asks a lot of its audience, notably for patience. In the latter half of the film Apichatong uses takes that seem to last forever, creating an environment of meditative soundscapes and colossally immovable spiritual concepts. It’s a one-of-a-kind experience that’s absolutely worth seeing in a theater, and those who do may, if they let themselves, come out of it with some new sense of understanding and acceptance of the unknown.
“Memoria” is a piece of art that’s difficult to describe and even harder to watch — it’s a journey that may excessively bore some, but may be an epiphany for others. The methods it uses aren’t completely new to the industry, but executing them on such a beautifully high-concept level, one that creates such a moving experience, is an astonishing feat. “Memoria” is currently screening in extremely select theaters nationwide.