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Memoria review: A surreal and immersive journey into the human mind

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Jessica searches every corner of Colombia for the source of the noise

Neon

Film

Memoria

Apichatpong Weerasethakul

“IN THIS town, there are a lot of people who have hallucinations,” a doctor tells Jessica (Tilda Swinton) at the beginning of Memoria. Then, in a neat encapsulation of the mix of the mystical and the medicinal that runs throughout this strange and heady film, she prescribes the tranquilliser Xanax while advising her patient not to take it in case it inhibits her ability to savour the beauty of the world.

Jessica is a British botanist in Colombia who wakes one night to a heavy thumping noise that is loud enough to set off car alarms. When it becomes apparent that no one else heard it, it sends her on a downwards spiral into anxiety. She can find no obvious source and continues to hear the noise regularly, while no one else can. Jessica travels from city to jungle to try to work out what it all means, getting caught up in deep and sometimes disturbing questions about the nature of reality.

The film-maker himself, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, had exploding head syndrome – a rare sleep disorder in which people are woken by the sensation of an (imagined) loud noise. Yet while his experience of this strange and unexplained condition was part of the inspiration for the story, Memoria is defiantly unempirical, more interested in how something might feel than what might have caused it.

As she investigates the strange noise, Jessica meets and befriends Agnes, an anthropologist who is examining a newly unearthed thousand-year-old skeleton of a young girl with a hole in her skull: probably “a ritual” to release evil spirits, the scientist reasons.

She also meets a sound engineer called Hernàn, who tries to replicate the sound inside her head with a catalogue of absurd cinema sound effects like “stomach hit wearing hoodie”, while Jessica explains that it is more like “a ball of concrete hitting a metal wall surrounded by seawater” and “a rumble from the core of the Earth”.

Hernàn puts the sound that comes closest to music with his band, and Jessica listens to it with headphones on and a wry smile. The audience cannot hear the music and it is a typically oblique move from Weerasethakul, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 2010 for the equally enthralling Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives.

Memoria is Weerasethakul’s first film set outside his home nation of Thailand, and it is essentially a meditation on interconnectedness. What does the past mean to modern life? Do we carry the memory of it, and of each other, with us somehow? And when things get weird, what should we pathologise and fix and when should we just try to understand ourselves better?

“What should we pathologise and fix and when should we just try to understand ourselves better?”

In doing this, Memoria isn’t didactic. Weerasethakul is asking questions, not answering them, and he seems to be aware of how lofty and pretentious it may all appear. Jessica laughs when she hears that Hernàn’s band is called The Depth of Delusion Ensemble, welcome levity that creates an unusual tone, feeling at once preternatural and realistic.

Memoria pushes people away before pulling them close. Swinton appears frail, nervy but curious. She talks carefully, urgently to Hernàn (whom later she discovers no one else has heard of), to her sister, to Agnes, but the camera always stays far away and static, shots so long, calm and still that the film envelops you instead of talking at you like most do.

It is a considered exercise in empathy and patience, a commitment between the camera and its audience as much as between people and generations. In its second half, Jessica visits an anthropological dig at Bogotá and there she meets a different Hernàn, a man who claims to remember everything. “I try to limit what I see,” he says, “experiences are harmful.”

As Jessica and the new Hernàn commune over coffee and pastoral meditations on life and death, memory becomes a fluid thing, a shared thing, as if we are all part of some collective experience. It is surreal and moving.

An abrupt change of direction in the finale feels like quite a U-turn and won’t be to everybody’s tastes, but overall Memoria is measured and deeply felt. This is slow cinema to see on a big screen and get lost in.

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