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Memoria’s sensory-overload mystery swirls around Tilda Swinton

Acclaimed director Apichatpong Weerasethakul returns with an eerie meditation

Tilda Swinton looking confused against a blurred background of white slats in Memoria Photo: NEON

This review of Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Memoria comes from the film’s screening at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival. Stay tuned for more information when the film arrives in U.S. release.

After hearing a major thud, Jessica (Tilda Swinton) suddenly wakes up to a milk-colored nighttime. The sound is dull, yet sharp, and it doesn’t have a clear sense of origin. Jessica soon discovers that almost no one else can hear the repeating, threatening clonk, save for pigeons and one frightened passerby on the street. Memoria, a glacial 136-minute meditation by Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Tropical Malady, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), concerns Jessica’s search for the truth behind this foreboding sound. And it’s a kind of ghost story, filled with supernatural terror and a psychological exploration of the connected human consciousness.

Jessica is an expatriate English woman living in Medellín, Colombia, where she operates a flower-selling business. She’s visiting her sister Karen (Agnes Brekke), who’s in a Bogata hospital suffering from a mysterious respiratory ailment. Initially, Memoria seems to concern Karen’s short-term memory issues: She doesn’t remember Jessica’s visits to the hospital. But she does remember an ominous stray dog, starving on the street, which she hoped to save, but ultimately forgot to help. Now she believes she’s cursed. But Memoria isn’t about individual memory, but collective forgetfulness.

Memoria operates on an eerie level: The sharp thuds arrive without notice, occasionally one at a time, other times in succession. Jessica eventually goes to a young, flirtatious recording engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), to replicate the sound. It’s deep, low, and metallic, as though it sprung from the center of the earth, like molten rock landing on the ground. Swinton’s angular frame becomes rigid whenever she hears the noises. Her physical tension is best expressed when Hernan is trying to recreate the noise’s sonic footprint: The closer he comes to replicating it, the more her shoulders become upright, as though the clatter were kissing her spine.

Weerasethakul’s film is a feast of a sonic landscape, and not just because of the thud. The rattle of the wind between the leaves seems to have its own language. A subplot in the narrative includes construction workers uncovering an ancient skeleton of a girl with a hole drilled into her skull to release demons. Likewise, Jessica is diagnosed with “Exploding Head Syndrome.” Weerasethakul isn’t too concerned with the mechanics of either phenomena. He takes greater interest in demonstrating how Colombia has moved away from its supernatural, indigenous roots to becoming a modern country, and the ways a white woman traversing that foreign ground can be consumed by the echoed ghosts of a lost culture.

Just as abnormal as the noise Jessica hears are the people she meets. She and Hernán form a connection, but he mysteriously disappears. Jessica later ventures to a hospital for treatment, and a nurse diagnoses her with hallucinations and suggests religion over Xanax. Finally, she meets another Hernán, this one an older fisherman who claims to remember everything, even memories from before he was born. They share communal memories of a mugging, and then the massacre of a family from decades ago. It’s one of the few times this movie speaks with clarity, to describe how generational and national trauma sticks to the back of one’s skull.

Swinton adjusts to these strange hurdles with aplomb. Though she has an immense range, she seems best positioned in films like Snowpiercer and We Need to Talk About Kevin, which leverage her unearthly presence. Memoria accomplishes the same thing, letting Swinton naturally relate to the bleak sci-fi undercurrents coursing through the film.

Tilda Swinton and a lab-coated character examine a pile of human bones in a room full of books and boxes in Memoria Photo: NEON

Weerasethakul’s Memoria is sometimes too opaque, however, and the deliberate pace by editor Lee Chatametikool becomes a muddled hindrance rather than offering clarity. To a certain extent, that’s the point. The shots are long and measured — it feels like there are only a few dozen cuts in the entire movie. That pace allows viewers to search the screen for meaning, just as Jessica is searching for the origin of the noise. That’s a gracious interpretation. The harsher view: This film is too metaphor-heavy to wholly hit its emotional target.

Instead, the film speaks with a primordial timbre. A sensation that’s been lost to time, but still resides in our subconscious, in the corner of the pitch-black room, in the silence of the night our ancestors knew to fear. That mediation resonates, even when the surface narrative looks murky. Weerasethakul’s Memoria doesn’t give too many answers. It moves at an interminable pace. But those are mostly strengths rather than faults, methods that force the audience to engage with the thoughts and collective memory buried deep within their psyches. In that sense, Memoria is a sensory explosion, and its dense, immersive shrapnel isn’t easily removable.

Memoria does not yet have a U.S. release date, but NEON has acquired distribution rights and describes it as “coming soon.”