Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Movie Review (Berlinale 2023): ‘The Eternal Memory’ Renders Vast Empathy and Humanity

Director:  Maite Alberdi

Writer:  Maite Alberdi

Synopsis: Augusto and Paulina have been together for 25 years. Eight years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Both fear the day he no longer recognizes her. World Premiere. Available online.

Although it may not contain many layers within its tragic subject matter, Maite Alberdi’s latest documentary, The Eternal Memory, renders vast empathy and humanity – reminding the spectator of the beauty of unique personal connection in times of hopelessness and grief. 

Alzheimer’s is a heartbreaking disease that slowly deteriorates a person’s recollections and cognitive functions. Unfortunately, it’s a condition without a cure. Because of it, everyone’s afraid of aging; we’re scared to face a constant confrontation with retaining our memories since we lose our own selves without them. Our personalities are forged by the passing of time and the experiences we undergo. Every time this disease or other ones like dementia are depicted on film, it arrives with a melancholic and saddening aftertaste, as it’s grueling to see people suffering from something so woeful. Sarah Polley’s Away From Her (2007) and Michael Haneke’s Amour (2012) inspired many filmmakers to take on stories about the complex subject with each making a different approach, whether it is Gaspar Noé with Vortex or Natalie Erika James’ Relic. Now, after her acclaimed work The Mole Agent (El Agente Topo), documentarian Maite Alberdi delivers The Eternal Memory, a love story amidst melancholy induced by Alzheimer’s. 

The subjects of The Eternal Memory are Augusto Góngorra, former TV journalist and cultural commentator, and his wife, Paulina “Pauli” Urrutia, an actress and former minister of the national council of culture and the arts of Chile. They have been together, madly in love with one another, for twenty-five years. And it is evident their devotion to each other hasn’t diminished a single bit, as we get glimpses of their past via photos and videos, thanks to acute editing by Carolina Siraqyan. We see charming moments of them enjoying a vacation across the seas, some of Augusto’s work in television, their marriage in 2016, and spending time with their children. In the archive footage, everything seems to be fine; nothing can hurt or break them apart. However, a small crack in their lives haunts Augusto, as he’s diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. Maite Alberdi blends the footage of the past with the present pandemic day to reflect love and illness – the effect each has over time. 

We are all familiar with the toll Alzheimer’s takes on people, but what Alberdi does is not shower the screen with excessive dread, even though pre-determined dashes of sadness come in hand with the topic. Instead, Alberdi wants to show how people care for each other in whatever state their partner is in – one might not believe in it, but it’s true love, people destined for each other. As his condition worsens, you’d think it affects their love, but what happens with Augusto and Pauli through The Eternal Memory’s runtime is the opposite. Pauli, now taking on the mantle of caretaker and memory preserver, still loves Augusto significantly. Even with the tragedy of memory loss at the center of their relationship, there’s an enduring love – a fire that hasn’t been extinguished and burns brighter as the years go by. It’s absolutely touching, rendering great amounts of compassion and tenderness as these two souls interact in the most lovely way imaginable. It’s palpable; you feel their love for each other bursting out of the screen and moving you. 

As I mentioned before, heartache arrives with the topic at hand, though its moments of bliss, particularly when Pauli is caring for Augusto and recalling some memories, are the ones that stayed with me the most. Pablo Valdés’ cinematographic eye beautifully captures those scenes. On one occasion, when Augusto sees Pauli perform on stage in a local stage play, the camera mainly focuses on him. We see him enjoying himself and the performance. Yet, primarily, there’s something else happening. It feels like he’s falling in love again with Pauli. Augusto might not recognize Pauli from the get-go; however, when he finally does, there’s a bright light in his eyes. He remembers their twenty-five years together. He may not recollect them in their entirety, but in beautiful pieces that showcase how the heart can store some memories of its own through good and bad situations. Scenes like these in The Eternal Memory remind us that sometimes, you can’t beat the real thing. 

Although this is a documentary, it is a love story at its core – a tale of romance amidst the troubles of an incurable illness. Documentaries can belong to different genres and not only focus on the journalistic aspects of its own trappings. Maite Alberdi’s latest work is a testament to the space love holds in our memories. The Eternal Memory is an intimate and heartbreaking passage into the lives of Paulina and Augusto. Sometimes, it feels like we’re trespassing and don’t want to interrupt them as they deal with these harsh situations. Yet, Alberdi and the two lovers welcome us into their homes because they want to demonstrate that what we see is not forged by tragedy but by devotion. 

Score: B+

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