“Memoria” begins with a bump in the night, or very early in the morning. We are in a darkened room, with just enough light peeking in to reveal the figure of a woman as she’s jolted awake by a loud noise — “a rumble from the core of the Earth,” as she’ll later describe it. She sits up in bed, listening intently and scanning the shadows for the source of this disturbance. Is it a construction crew getting off to an early start? (It is not.) What exactly is this sound and why does it haunt her so, apart from her growing realization that she may be the only one who can hear it?
That last question propels this latest wonderment from the Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose beautiful and entrancing films (including “Syndromes and a Century” and “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives”) have earned him a devoted international following. If you know Weerasethakul’s work, some of what you see in “Memoria,” which won a jury prize at Cannes last year, may not surprise you: clinical rooms and lush landscapes; lengthy single-take sequences that observe more than they explain; a sense of enchantment that creeps almost imperceptibly into every becalmed frame. But if “Memoria” is a gorgeous reassertion of form, it is also a bold excursion into new territory.
Shot in Colombia (which it represented in the recent Oscar race for international feature), it’s the director’s first feature produced entirely outside Thailand. It also marks his first time working with a Hollywood star, and it says something about Weerasethakul’s methods that Tilda Swinton, often typecast as a movie’s most outlandish element, here provides an anchoring note of calm. The story begins in Bogotá, where Jessica (Swinton), a Scottish-born orchidologist who lives in nearby Medellín, has come to visit her ailing sister. As those sounds disturb her waking moments and keep sleep at bay, she begins researching their origins — a mission that becomes ever more hypnotic and unsettling as it leads her out into the surrounding forest.
With its subtly bifurcated, town-to-country structure, “Memoria” carries echoes of some of its predecessors, especially “Blissfully Yours” and “Tropical Malady.” But the differences are as striking as the similarities. Nearly every Weerasethakul movie can be approached as a kind of mystery, but “Memoria” is his first to present itself so explicitly as a detective story. And while sound has always been a crucial element of his formal design — his films are veritable symphonies of rushing water, chattering wildlife and soaring Thai pop — he has never been more attentive to the contours of his soundscape, or more insistent that we not only look but listen. (His key collaborators here include the sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr, the sound supervisor Javier Umpiérrez and the sound director Raúl Locatelli.)
In one of the movie’s most enveloping scenes — a demonstration of how easily, in Weerasethakul’s hands, the mundane can slip into the magical — Jessica seeks assistance from a young sound engineer, Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego). In exacting detail, she describes the loud bang she’s been hearing (“a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well which is surrounded by seawater”), which Hernán tries to replicate using a library of movie sound effects. A digital reproduction played on a computer, he warns her, might approximate what she’s hearing, but won’t achieve the same impact — a statement that reverberates here in ways that may exceed even Weerasethakul’s own intentions.
Here it may be worth noting that “Memoria” is the beneficiary of an appropriately experimental release strategy devised by its distributor, Neon. (It opens this Friday for a weeklong run at the Nuart and will play at other Los Angeles theaters in coming weeks.) The idea is for the movie to play exclusively and eternally on the big screen, one theater and one city at a time; it will never be made available on DVD or home-streaming platforms. When this plan was announced months ago, some dismissed it as elitist — hardly the first time that word has been hurled in Weerasethakul’s direction. Others, myself included, couldn’t help but applaud Neon for treating “Memoria” as not just another chunk of streamable content, but rather as a work of art that demands to be approached on its own terms and experienced under the best possible conditions.
To put it another way: Weerasethakul doesn’t make convenient movies, and our culture of instant cinematic gratification could scarcely be more antithetical to the way he perceives the world. And so there is something to be said for allowing his movie to reach its audience at a pace commensurate with its own serene, meditative rhythms. When you go to see “Memoria” — and I urge you to make time to see it — you may feel an instinctive kinship with Jessica from that jolt of an opener: Here you are, just like her, having left home to find yourself sitting in darkness, watching and listening and trying to figure out what the hell’s going on. There’s pleasure in this discombobulation, and within a few moments, you find yourself warming to Jessica’s company — and marveling at Swinton’s ability to both harness and downplay her natural magnetism.
This is not the first time she has modulated her screen presence in service to an auteur’s otherworldly vision, or proven herself an exceptionally skilled polyglot. (Having tried her hand at Hungarian in “The Man From London” and Russian-accented Italian in “I Am Love,” Swinton speaks Spanish here with a longtime expat’s slightly faltering fluency.) It’s a wondrously self-effacing performance from an actor who ordinarily can’t help but grab the camera’s attention. Here, the cinematographer Sayombhu Mukdeeprom (shooting on 35-millimeter film) maintains a watchful distance from Swinton, seldom going in for a close-up (the rare exception is a jaw-dropper) and finding the expressive depths in her spare, precise body language.
Warm yet reserved, happy to speak but happier to listen, Jessica awakens your protective instincts and your identification. But if she serves as something of a surrogate for the audience, she might also be a stand-in for Weerasethakul: a curious, sensitive outsider, humbly engaging with the riddles of a culture that isn’t her own. We watch as she walks the streets of Bogotá, wanders an art gallery and shops for a refrigerator for her orchids. She sits with her recovering sister (Agnes Brekke) in a hospital and consults an archaeologist (Jeanne Balibar) who’s studying ancient human remains. In time Jessica will head out into the countryside, not far from where those remains were excavated, and make contact with an older fisherman (a remarkable Elkin Díaz). There, in a rapturously beautiful riverside idyll, they forge a connection as inexplicable as it is profound.
The fisherman happens to be named Hernán, and the possibility that he and the sound engineer are the same person — or alternate versions thereof — would hardly be out of place in Weerasethakul’s cinematic universe, where the transmigration of souls is a given. In her own way, too, Jessica is granted access to someone else’s consciousness. As the older Hernán shares a draft of his hallucination-stirring home brew and speaks about his own personal history, Jessica seems to empty herself out. She becomes a vessel — “an antenna,” in her host’s words — for the perceptions, insights and recollections of others. Hernán describes himself as a “hard disk,” a bottomless repository of memories, and the references to outmoded technology further immerse us in a world that feels both far from home and out of time.
“Memoria,” as its title makes transparent, is about the excavation and reanimation of lost memories, the preservation of things in danger of being lost, destroyed or forgotten. These might include the traditions of Colombia’s Indigenous people, or perhaps the lives affected by the armed conflict that has regularly engulfed the nation since the 1960s. But Weerasethakul has no use for conventional history lessons. He loves the people in front of his camera, and his love proves contagious. He’s also fascinated by the forces of decay and impermanence, and the possibility of using technology to cheat them or at least slow them down. Jessica’s refrigerators are one such mechanism; the cinema is another.
And cinema, as Weerasethakul reminds us, is still a young art, one whose properties and possibilities are still in the process of revealing themselves. An explanation for those strange sounds does materialize, and even coming from a filmmaker who has primed us to expect the otherworldly, it’s something to see — and to hear. A paean to the distant past that unfolds in a rigorous present tense, “Memoria” finally reveals itself as a vision from the future — a declaration of faith in a medium that hasn’t lost its power to astonish.
In Spanish and English, with English subtitles
Rating: Not rated
When: Opens Friday
Where: Digital Gym Cinema, 1100 Market St., downtown San Diego
Running time: 2 hours, 16 minutes