Watching a film by Apichatpong Weerasethakul is akin to reading poetry, or listening to a prayer; you get the sense that what you’re watching is almost spiritual, more than just entertainment. Maybe it’s his frequent nods towards magical realism—or the way he’s able to blend arthouse and fantasy—but every movie in his filmography carries this unique kind of transcendence. This is one of the reasons I was so excited to see his newest film; and this excitement only increased when it won the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival along with a Jury Prize at the 74th Cannes Film Festival. After just seeing it for the second time, I can confirm that 2021’s Memoria is one of the best movies out right now.
Weerasethakul’s work is always engaged with themes of memory and history, and that’s no different here. Even the film’s name is Spanish for ‘memory,’ a fitting nod to the fact that this is his first time travelling outside of his native Thailand, to the mountainous countryside of Colombia. In various interviews, both Weerasethakul and Tilda Swinton (who helped produce the film and stars in it) have stated that the reasoning behind this choice is that they wanted to capture a sense of alienation and displacement. As we follow Swinton’s character, Jessica, around the country searching for an explanation to a sound only she can hear, this sense of alienation definitely comes through.
This can be attributed to a variety of factors: Swinton’s stellar acting, for one, really captures the kind of disconnection that occurs when someone’s alone in a strange place. Her ability to master the subtlest movements really helps us sink into each scene, fully believing what we’re watching. The cinematography also helps set this tone by following the typical standards of the ‘slow cinema’ style Weerasethakul has come to master: combining minimal camera work with long shots that tend to linger long after a character has left the frame, making us contemplate presence and absence, which speaks to how the film ultimately tries to show that history always bleeds into the present.
Following this through-line of history, trauma and memory is perhaps the best way to access the politics of Memoria. In one scene, a bus exhaust lets off a loud bang—not dissimilar to the sound Jessica keeps hearing—and a man on the sidewalk hits the floor, looks around, then sprints away thinking he’s heard a gunshot. How does the trauma of our past continue to shape the way we move through the world today? What role does this play in the process of alienation? And, perhaps most interestingly, how is are these experiences shared socially, is that where catharsis lies? These are the things we’re left to contemplate as the film inches towards an absolutely unforgettable ending. While NEON initially made a mess of this film’s distribution, it now has a touring schedule. It’ll tour theaters forever, never being released on blu-ray/DVD/4K, and it’ll never stream, so catch it in a theater near you! It’s a watch you won’t forget.