Jessica is roused in the night by a loud sound, the cause of which she can’t determine. She grows obsessed with it, what its origin might be, and what it means. She seeks assistance from a recording engineer named Hernán (a flirtatiously engaging Juan Pablo Urrego) who helps her replicate the “earthy bang”. Later, however, when she returns to see Hernán, she is told that no one with that name works there. Did she imagine him? Is the episode a commentary on the elasticity of time and the likelihood of parallel realities? These questions and many more are raised and explored throughout Memoria, the latest and riveting project from director Apichatpong Weerasethakul and starring Tilda Swinton.
The theme of the quest is central to the film, as is the concomitant matter of initiation. As longevity and literature teach us, the process of initiation is frequently unchosen; it is, rather, thrust upon one. The choice, then, is whether to follow or resist the invitation. In a scene during which she and a friend converse while sitting together on a park bench, Jessica remarks, “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” though it’s more precise to say that her conditioned notions regarding self, world, and life are undergoing a radical rearrangement. In this sense, she’s an iteration of the classic hero – reminiscent of protagonists ranging from Noah to Joan d’Arc to The Matrix’s Neo to innumerable superheroes – the one who has been appointed, who proceeds undauntingly, driven by some untraceable yet unwavering belief, faith, or curiosity.
Toward Memoria’s end, Jessica meets a shamanic character who is also named Hernán (a soberly compelling Elkin Diaz). One wonders if this Hernán and the previous Hernán are one person. A form of the trickster? The shapeshifter? The spirit guide? This Hernán tells Jessica that he, like Funes in Jorge Luis Borges’ “Funes the Memorious“, has an eidetic memory and never leaves his village. Interestingly, in many scenes, he is cleaning fish, which leads one to consider if the character might be a reference to the wounded Fisher King, who was healed by the Perceval/Galahad figure. While it would be a stretch to dub Jessica a reworking of the Arthurian prototype, she is the one person who can read and in turn validate Hernán’s memories (and foreshadowings). Through her, he is mirrored and to some degree completed. Through him, she is given access to a higher plane; i.e., fully initiated.
Filmed in Columbia, the venture is cinematically entrancing. The camera freezes on exquisite sky scenes, cityscapes, and a totem in a town square. A curious dog. Dancers on the street. Two people sitting across from one another and saying nothing for an extended period of time. Silence is integral to Memoria as is, of course, our response to it. When Hernán lies in the grass to sleep, the camera zooms in on his still figure and open eyes, then zooms out to show his motionless body resting in the tall grass, Jessica seated beside him.
What appears to be a vulture lands on a tree branch in the top right corner of the screen. When he wakes, Jessica asks him what it was like to die. At that moment, Hernán is not only the Fisher King but also a Lazarus-Christ-Quetzalcoatl figure, a character who experiences death and returns or is resurrected, over and over.
Swinton, as Jessica, offers a virtuosic performance. The role requires restraint and subtle expressiveness, that particular merging of the stoic and rapturous so often embodied by the devoted quester. Jessica is waiting as much as searching, responding as much as forging. Then: the sci-fi conclusion, a possibly bizarre, even absurdist, though unforgettable denouement. Memoria lands as a psychedelically inspired allegory, an impressionistic inquiry into the conundrum of human existence, as well as the nature of ignorance and insight, suffering and enlightenment.
Perhaps the ending, and specifically the interspatial object in question, is presented to exemplify Jessica’s transformative moment. When the symbolic rains cease and the illusions drop away, the anticlimactic yet thrilling truth is revealed.