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Movie review: 'Memoria' opens space for silence at Zeitgeist

Apichatpong Weerasethakul's new film, starring Tilda Swinton, will never be released for home viewing. That's not just a gimmick.

A casually dressed woman standing in a dark interior space looks into a glassed-off cubic volume about the size of a living room, with scant grass growing and some sunlight shining from above.
In "Memoria," Tilda Swinton's character, Jessica, goes in search of what's she's not seeing.
Contributed / Neon
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DULUTH — Sounds of praise from Bayfront Festival Park echoed off the hill Friday afternoon when I stepped out of the Zeitgeist Zinema. I got into my car and turned off the stereo. As I drove through Duluth's streets, I noticed the silent people.

A woman in a ruffled dress crouching on a corner, her fingers steepled. A man with a backpack standing outside an apartment building, staring into the distance. Another man walking slowly across the street, as though traffic didn't exist. They all seemed to be listening. What were they hearing? Was it the City on the Hill Christian music festival, or was it the music of the spheres?

That's the state of mind "Memoria" left me in. The latest feature from Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul is playing at Zeitgeist through Thursday, after which it may not play anywhere in Minnesota — not in a theater, not on a TV, not on a phone — for a very long time. No home video release is planned, and the movie's only playing in a limited number of locations at any given time, for short runs. The Zeitgeist run is just the second Minnesota appearance for the film, which the Walker Art Center screened three times in June.

A group of Duluth stakeholders are convening around a vision for a soundstage and film production campus. The next step: securing a location, and the funds to build it.

The unusual release strategy isn't just a gimmick. "Memoria," as much an art installation as a film screening, has an effect on the viewer that couldn't easily be replicated outside of a theatrical context. Weerasethakul's rock-steady camera opens vast spaces for silence, and for the sounds beyond.

Tilda Swinton stars as Jessica, a Scottish woman living in Colombia. Swinton brings an otherworldly energy to every role, and Jessica is dislocated in multiple senses: It's never clear what her occupation might be, and she's free to follow the sounds in her head. No one else in the movie hears the occasional booming sounds that startle Jessica, and us. Seemingly sensing a connection between the sounds and an archaeological investigation of ancient remains, Jessica enters the rainforest and meets a hermit (Elkin Diaz) with an unusually vast set of memories.


As the film progresses, writer-director Weerasethakul deconstructs the apparatus of society. Initially, Jessica carries on with a semblance of normality, visiting her ailing sister and seeking professional help for the sounds in her own head. By midway through the movie, though, Jessica can barely abide the rhythms of ordinary life, with the insistent thumping disrupting a genteel restaurant meal.

The solution is silence. As Jessica and the hermit converse, silences gape longer and time distends. Cries, whispers and chatter cut subtly through the sounds of rustling leaves and a burbling stream. The effect, underlined by fragmented explanations from the hermit, is to render history audible. What history, exactly, does Jessica need to hear?

Her very presence, as a white Brit in South America, evokes the history of colonialism; the excavation of ancient human remains points to a time not just before European settlement, but before civilization. There's virtually no end to the layers of human experience that have been lost to memory, and Weerasethakul creates a sense of urgency by suggesting that there is joy and wonder to be had along with the pain of restoring those layers.

In a verdant rainforest setting, a woman and man sit together talking near a low table where the man is scaling fish. Various tools and structures are visible scattered throughout the scene.
Jessica (Tilda Swinton) meets a fish scaler (Elkin Diaz) with a deep memory in Apichatpong Weerasethakul's "Memoria."
Contributed / Neon

"Memoria" is an understated film, occupying 136 minutes with only the wisp of a plot and no obvious villains. While Jessica ultimately finds transcendence in the forest, the city dwellers she leaves behind aren't vilified. Everyone she meets seems perfectly nice, and Weerasethakul refrains from drawing any damning contrasts in the manner of "Koyaanisqatsi," Godfrey Reggio's brilliant but hardly subtle 1982 film suggesting that mechanical metastasis has tipped our ecosystem out of balance.

At one point, Jessica stops to listen to a live jazz band playing with warmth and verve. It's a throwaway scene, but it complicates the idea that silence in and of itself is a good thing. A character played by Juan Pablo Urrego, who seems to be a younger version of the hermit, works as a recording engineer in a music studio. The hermit hasn't sought isolation out of misanthropy, it seems, but the opposite.

The hermit doesn't listen for what he wants to hear, but for what he must. The final shots of "Memoria" challenge viewers to sit with silence. What history do we need to hear in the land we call home?

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Related Topics: MOVIESDULUTH
Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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