A woman attempts to trace the origins of a mysterious sound she keeps hearing in Memoria, the latest work from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul (Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) and starring Tilda Swinton that played in competition at Cannes last month before making its way to the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival.
Memoria is bound to put off some viewers with Weerasethakul’s trademark slow pacing and lengthy runtime, and perhaps prove even more divisive than the Cannes-winning Uncle Boonmee. But for those who don’t mind sitting through minutes-long sequences where the only movement on screen is the wind gently blowing through blades of grass, this is a meditative, quietly profound, and at times even fascinating experience.
Memoria opens with a lengthy sequence that sets the tone for the film that will follow: a darkened room, the middle of the night… nothing. After some minutes go by, there’s a deafening “thud” that will jolt audience members with the same impact of a stinger on a horror movie soundtrack. It also startles Jessica (Swinton), who awakens from her sleep and quietly awaits any further disturbance, which never materializes.
Jessica’s backstory doesn’t seem to be much concern for Weerasethakul, but she’s in Bogotá, Colombia, and in Memoria’s opening scenes she visits her sister (Agnes Brekke) in a hospital, speaks with her sister’s partner Juan (Daniel Giménez Cacho), and runs into an archeologist (Jeanne Balibar) who happens to be excavating an ancient site in the jungle.
And Jessica continues to hear the thud. It becomes clear to us and her that only she can hear it, but she nevertheless attempts to track its origins; a conversation with her sister points her to a dog in the city; later, a conversation overheard between her sister and Juan suggests that it might be something older, a omen from an ancient civilization.
In one of the film’s most fascinating sequences, Jessica meets with a young sound engineer (Juan Pablo Urrego) to try to replicate the thud. “It was more… metallic,” she tells him. Eventually, he gets it just right, and Jessica listens to it over and over trying to discover some meaning behind it.
Later on, Jessica travels to a remote village where a fisherman (Elkin Díaz) tells her he has never left. They have a lengthy conversation that leads to one of Memoria’s most meditative scenes, of Díaz lying impossibly still on the ground and the blades of grass fluttering in the wind. It goes on for what feels like ten minutes; Weerasethakul briefly cuts away to a long shot, and then back to a motionless Díaz. You either go with this kind of thing or you don’t.
And what’s with the noise? For its slow pacing and other artistic ambition, Memoria doesn’t get ambiguous: the riddle is ultimately answered, and in wild and weighty fashion. Few films attempt to both pose these kinds of deep questions about our existence and also answer them (Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and David Lowery’s A Ghost Story both come to mind), but Memoria continues in a grand tradition that also evokes the filmmaker’s previous work.
Weerasethakul chose to make Memoria in Colombia, his first outside of his native Thailand, for the country’s parallels to his story: the location is the site of active volcanoes and other natural disasters, and during previous decades, outbursts of more man-made violence.
Memoria is a movie about how we interact with the world around us, about the sudden and unexpected events that shape our lives, the knowing apprehension we have in advance of them and our search for meaning afterwards. This may not be a film for everyone, but it will be a profound experience for those who can tune into its wavelength.