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AFI Fest 2021: Finding Meaning in Memoria


Memoria is silent until it bangs. And I mean that literally. The first sound you hear is a controlled explosion—a sound that Jessica (Tilda Swinton) later describes as round, metallic, and deep, with an echo of sorts. It’s a sound that Jessica will hear over and over again throughout Memoria, at times that are unexpected and random. Sleep-deprived and possibly hallucinating, she confides in a friend that she might be going crazy.

Memoria is driven by that sound. We hear it and we wonder what it is and why it’s happening. We wonder whether Jessica will find a cure or adapt to this new psychological development.

But much like the Big Bang—which also started with silence and then an explosion—the film careens from its local starting point into broad and universal reflections on memory, history, and the relationship between man and earth. By the end of the film, one strains to recall the past hour and a half of Jessica’s scattered interactions, wondering how it might all fit together. In that way Memoria is itself like a collection of memories from which each moviegoer must craft a narrative and derive his/her/their own meaning.

In my mind, Memoria draws attention to the shrouded connection between memory and narrative history. We (and by that I suppose I can only claim to speak for Western cultures) have a linear way of thinking about the past. Either you did something or you didn’t, and what happened is both Reality and the Truth. If your memory of that event deviates even slightly from Reality, you are misremembering. Straying from Truth. Memoria questions that premise. Can a memory be real even if may never have happened—the young Hernán’s sound mixing, for one—or if it isn’t yours? The obnoxious banging sound on replay in Jessica’s head suggests that it can. Memoria plays with our understanding of what is real or imagined, to the point where we aren’t sure if Jessica is an archeologist or whether she resides in Medellín or Bogotá. And by the end those details don’t really matter, because we’re wondering: is it so farfetched to think that a memory be shared among humans, or stored in the earth for an anecdotal archeologist to discover?

Resurfacing before we get lost in the fog of unanswerable questions (which, by the way, is where I found myself when the credits rolled). I did not share in the Jessica’s clarity at the end of Memoria, and for that I am grateful. The answers Jessica may have gathered from the older Hernán spawned a slew of questions that I am through this review only sizing up before wrestling with them.

Memoria’s universality is reinforced by its impressive cast and crew. Directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, a Thai independent filmmaker, Memoria features actors from Britain, Colombia, France, and Spain, and was selected as Colombia’s entry in the international feature film competition at the upcoming Academy Awards. It is Weerasethakul’s first feature shot outside of Thailand and with an international cast, built in part on the stories of people he met while traveling through Colombia. It is a debut that will be ringing between ears worldwide for years to come.

Memoria is equally astonishing as a technical and visual endeavor. The starting explosion begins an enhanced audial experience. Everything from a symphony of car alarms and bustling chatter to the sound of flipped textbook pages and the hum of a building is clear, crisp, and loud. It’s as though the sound mixing is turned up on life. On the flipside, every silence is more than just quiet; it is the intentional absence of sound. And the cinematography (Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, who also shot Call Me By Your Name) captures beautifully the contrast between the cacophony of civilization and, when the tone shifts, the natural peace of the Columbian jungle. Memoria hits so hard in part because it utilizes sensory inputs as a method of capturing meaning—much like a memory.


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