In a previous house, I heard a drip. At first, I couldn’t locate it, I could just hear it. A persistent, irritating, anxiety inducing drip. Eventually, I tracked the drip down (it was a pipe above a ceiling that was ever so slightly leaking). But, from that point onwards, I was ultra-aware. The silent house became a symphony of anxiety, full of little sounds both real and imagined. When I wasn’t hearing things, I was waiting to hear things or thinking of the things I would hear. It was overwhelming. Memoria understands this feeling. The difference, though, is that Memoria uses this idea for something more affirming and contemplative, for something more philosophical.

Memoria is the latest from Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. It’s a very him kind of film, a poetic piece of slow cinema more interested in atmosphere than in narrative. In fact, it is somewhat of a non-narrative experiment, but (like with so many films that adopt this stance) the lack of story becomes its own tale. The film focuses on Tilda Swinton’s character, a Scottish woman now living in Colombia (working as a flower seller). She hears a noise, suddenly and out of nowhere. It’s this earthy, round, metallic thud. It is abrasive and unexplained. It disturbs her world. The film becomes her attempted journey to diagnose this noise, as it won’t let her sleep and seemingly exists only in head (appearing at random). Memoria isn’t actually interested in diagnoses though, or explanation, it uses this apparent condition as a catalyst for discovery and experience.

The film’s form is one of vignettes, incidental ones. We watch static setups of locations, perfectly framed, and life exists in them. Sometimes it is a character moment, maybe even a narrative moment, often it is just a nothingness or something seemingly prosaic. In all of these moments, sound is foregrounded. Ambient noise becomes the film’s primary soundtrack, or score, with looping noises that would usually be ignored completely overtaking the soundscape. It is an immersive experience, one that makes you fully cognisant of the world around the characters. It is also an overwhelming one, you feel the weight of existence and of being; you sag under the heaviness of the world. There is so much noise, even in quietness. This obviously evokes the growing hyper sensitivity of our main character, a wonderful touch of subjective cinema, but it does a lot more.

The brilliance of Memoria (and it is a brilliant film, though one that occasionally overreaches, and one occasionally dulled through repetition) is in its messaging. We experience a world both overwhelming and abrasive, in which a woman is seemingly randomly disturbed by a disruptive noise. However, through this she is pushed out of a normal routine and forced into discovery. The static frames make us watch as well as listen, forcing us to live in the moment. It is not quite filmmaking as praxis but it invokes what it preaches, putting the audience in a position in line with the film’s intent. A wave of sound becomes an everyday symphony, populated with beautiful moments.

An early highlight is just a fascinating interaction with a sound engineer in which Swinton has to describe the sound to him, as she wants him to produce it (thinking this will help her understand it). The major insight here is how do you describe a sound? How can you translate something non linguistic into language. It is a rather perfect moment because it also draws attention to the brilliance of cinema, and of experiential cinema. How does one describe Memoria? We can attempt but, ultimately, its language is unique and cannot be put into verbal description. A later brilliant moment is just a band playing. It is one of several moments where a new soundscape just interrupts an old one. Here, you watch people watch the music and therefore experience it with them. It is a way of cinema using visuals to highlight sound, and experience, and it is wonderful. We do see the music being played, to finish off this moment, which is its own beauty, but the moments before are even more special. And all of this because the camera is allowed to linger and because we have to observe.

Though the film falls in line most obviously with the work of Lav Diaz, Tsai Ming-liang, Ben Rivers and Hou Hsiao-hsien (with a touch of Hranitzky and Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies), it is also oddly reminiscent of Rossellini’s Viaggio in Italia. Like that film, this uses a destination and a purpose to pepper in vignettes that allow the characters to reflect on time, changing and existence. This is not a road trip film, but it is a voyaging or journeying film. Encounters with remains and artefacts really bring Rossellini’s film to mind (the iconic moment at Pompei coming to the fore) and though they are very different in intent and expression, there is a shared purpose here. And, to a great extent, that connection is due to cinema.

This is a film that takes full advantage of the medium while seemingly doing so little. It is film as experience, a film fully aware that the length of a film is a journey, that it is a voyage. Not every vignette is as successful as others, at points it overstays and at points the listlessness almost takes over. The repetitions don’t always add to it, though subsequent viewings may allay this concern. All that being said, it is certainly something fascinating, it is not quite unique and maybe becomes too comfortable over its runtime (too fully embracing the incidental), but, to a huge extent, it is an experience very worth having.

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