Jessica first heard the bang in the early morning hours. It’s an unearthly sound, a loud thump she describes as a big concrete ball falling into a metallic well surrounded by seawater. Certainly not a sound you hear every day. But for the Scottish scholar living in Colombia, it’s a sound that haunts her in a way that feels both random and specific.

Starring Tilda Swinton and written and directed by Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Memoria is a movie where the ear directs the eye. It’s also a movie that requires your full attention and rewards those who give it. I suppose that’s why distributor Neon decided it would only be released in theaters, never on home video. It’s a strategy that speaks to the sanctity of the movie theater, not to mention a clever ploy to take the passivity out of movie watching.

Jessica’s search for the sound no one else seems to hear brings her to a man no one else seems to know (Juan Pablo Urrego) and another living in the jungle with nothing more than his memories (Elkin Díaz). Curiously, both men bear the name Hernán. 

Memoria is a sometimes slow, sometimes meandering mystery that winds its way into the South American jungle but never loses focus. It’s reminiscent of a Haruki Murakami tale: a work of magical realism where the magic doesn’t feel that unusual and the realism doesn’t feel that grounded.

Tilda Swinton and Elkin Díaz in Memoria. Images courtesy Neon.

Weerasethakul has made a name for himself on the world stage with his dreamy, mythical takes on slow cinema—a type of visual storytelling that brings to life Claude Debussy’s aphorism: “Music is the space between the notes.” His 2000 debut, Mysterious Object at Noon, playfully breaks from the narrative because Weerasethakul seems to decide mid-movie that he wants to make something else. In 2004’s Tropical Malady, the movie reincarnates itself when one of the characters disappears into the jungle and reappears as a tiger. 

Memoria is something different. The narrative feels tighter and more focused. That banging noise doesn’t just initiate Jessica’s quest; it directs it—slowly bringing her closer to a place she is meant to discover. I’m not sure Jessica gets to see what makes the noise, but everyone in the theater does. It’s one of the most surprising and satisfying reveals I’ve seen in a long time. On its own, Memoria is a great movie that deserves an audience, but Neon’s one-theater-at-a-time release strategy has elevated every screening into one of the year’s premier cinematic events. The film casts a wonderful spell—a warm, comforting spell that wipes clear the doors of perception—and it could only work in a theatrical setting.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Memoria (2021)
Written and directed by Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Produced by Diana Bustamante, Julio Chavezmontes, Charles de Meaux, Simon Field, Keith Griffiths, Michael Weber, Apichatpong Weerasethakul
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Agnes Brekke, Daniel Giménez Cacho, Juan Pablo Urrego, Elkin Díaz
Neon, Rated PG, Running time 136 minutes, Premiered July 15, 2021 at the Cannes Film Festival.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly, Vol. 30, No. 8, “Between the notes.”