Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
A strange sound hits different in the night. You’re roused in the dark, wondering what that was, where it came from, and whether it was even real or something your sleepy brain let slip out of your subconscious to fuck with your waking mind.
Most can turn over and resume sleeping, but not Jessica (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish expat in Colombia, who stops sleeping as she chases that nighttime sound in her waking hours, exploring every avenue to figure out just what that noise could’ve been.
It’s loud, above all. She describes it as a massive concrete ball dropped down a metal shaft surrounded by water (specific, and impressively recalled). What’s certain is that it’s foreign to our lives and unnerving as a result, cracking open normalcy and leaving it spoiled with every intrusion. Where is it coming from, and what does it mean? Why is she the only one who seems to hear it?
Her quest to find out brings her into contact with a sound engineer who uses high-tech gear to recreate the sound, synthesizing memory in an audio file; an archeologist digging up ancient bones next to a tunnel excavator, and later a villager who remembers everything from both his own life and others’, inheriting memories from generations before via near-osmotic transference from the earth as he walks on and touches it.
But in the end, is it really about this sound?
Memoria is an odd duck that fuses earth-bound spiritualism and science fiction in a surreal waiting game where Weerasethakul’s slow cinema and its long silences are no longer contemplative and appreciative, but rather nervous halts in your breath as you keep an ear out for that infernal noise as this alien intruder in your eardrums unnerves and intrigues.
Mystery is the film’s game, and in its long takes we’re invited to read everything into the long silences that swell the relatively few scenes that the film has to make it an exercise where the audience immerses itself in what’s before it, and at time it almost becomes a subconscious enjoyment rather than an immediately cerebral one.
You want to fasten your eyes on Swinton and try to read the meaning of what’s before by the reflection in her eyes, but even here Weerasethakul doesn’t satisfy, shooting her in long shots that place her within wider compositions where the world around her attains equal importance. Swinton’s fine performance, in how minute emotions flitter across her face and wrings tiny movements from her wiry physique, is not the attraction, despite her rarely leaving the frame, but rather a waypoint to where Weerasethakul wants to go, down this rabbit hole of how intense feeling is wrought from that we cannot see, but intensely feel without being aware of its import just yet.
This is not so say Weerasethakul guides you along and the deep breathing exercise that is his cinematic pacing can be daunting because the silences in Memoria do not have the same contemplative beauty as Syndromes And A Century or Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, and a late-breaking twist gives Memoria a surprisingly juvenile quality, that while immediately funny, also echoes back through Memoria, casting into question an otherwise measured and deliberated treatise on memory, trauma, and the intangible existence that swirls around our everyday.
Beautiful, but not quite as beautiful as former works; intriguing, but not quite as enthralling, Memoria has both serenity and surprises, but fails to ascend, and perhaps, only backfires on itself as it strives for more.