Memoria begins with a sound and for the rest of its runtime our main character, Jessica (Tilda Swinton), is trying to find the origin of that sound and to understand why she seems to be the only one hearing it. We travel with her through Colombia as she searches for answers and we see the small oddities that accompany her journey, along with the noise which reoccurs in her daily life. There’s never a clear message throughout the film about what exactly Jessica is going through or why we’re following her story. There are many scenes that are quite long where we observe her in her solitude or minimal interactions, and at times it’s quite hard to glean what we should take from these scenes. Can this mystery be solved if we look at scenes more closely, or should we view them as a series of puzzle pieces that once put together form more of a tapestry of meaning? The only thing we know for certain is that there’s something going on that other people are unaware of, but Jessica can sense.
In order to try to understand what she experienced early on in her search, she employs the help of an audio effects creator who tries to replicate what she heard in his studio. Their exchange turns odd as she keeps pushing for the right sound and gives more descriptions of the auditory qualities of the bang that woke her up. She’s polite and a little embarrassed as she pushes him to tweak his recordings to get closer to her memory. The undercurrent is that even as they laugh at this bizarre activity, there’s a real need for her to hear it again, to get a definitive record of the sound, as if to prove that what she heard was real and not a figment of her imagination. Where previously she always responded to the sound, we see a dinner scene later on where the sound occurs whilst she’s in the midst of conversation and she tries to ignore it, almost push it away, as it keeps returning. It’s easy enough for her to start to believe that this could be a case of psychosis; she even suggests as much to a doctor. A part of her seems to still sense, though, that the answers she’s seeking aren’t that simple, this phenomenon she’s experiencing can’t just be explained away. This experience is real and authentic, and it’s happening to her and no one else.
One sequence of scenes forms the bulk of the last third of the film as Jessica shares a quite extraordinary experience with a local fisherman she comes across. While their conversation starts off more friendly than anything else, it quickly grows deeper as he reveals more about his extrasensory gifts. She regards some of his assertions with uncertainty initially but starts to see that while he may be speaking about impossible abilities, he’s the only one that regards her own experiences with complete acceptance. Up to this point, everyone she tells about the sound doesn’t know quite how to deal with her, and she can’t find a single person who can relate to what she’s feeling until this interaction. When she does talk to people, at some point sharing a meal with her sister’s family, there’s a tenuous connection. She doesn’t seem to have a heart-to-heart with anyone else until she and the fisherman find themselves together near a creek. This portion of the film feels like a catharsis where she has finally come to grips with the fact that her experience is real and she’s not alone anymore in it.
At the end of the film, I tried to take some meaning from the title. “Memoria” is the Spanish word for “memory.” Jessica is Scottish and interacts in mostly Spanish while in Colombia, but the film suggests that even as a visitor to this place, this perpetual sounds connects her to the country in a personal way. During the final scene between her and the fisherman, they share a deeply private bonding experience that speaks to paths of connection she didn’t know she had. Even as they face each other, two opposites in almost every way, something is shared. It doesn’t feel like coincidence that they met, how they did, or when they did; it is a stronger pull than that. While fascinated by an ongoing excavation that she hears about, there’s never an explicit pull towards the site and we as an audience never feel that she is experiencing déjà vu as if some past version of herself lived here. The film is not about her memories at all, it’s more about the memories that are shared with her. A collective memory of Colombia that’s imprinted itself on her, something bigger that she becomes swept away in. Maybe it’s purposeful we learn so little about her–she’s more of a vessel that collects memories rather than shares them. We’re seeing a portion of her visit, and within that the different ideologies and beliefs that form Colombia.
I don’t think any one person leaves Memoria with the same interpretation of what they’ve just seen, and this is clearly intentional. All that we see onscreen is left open to explanation. Depending on where you are in your life and what you’ve lived through, you’ll approach the scenes differently and find significance in different parts of it all. This film is a great conversation starter, and the ending definitely opens up the meaning of the film in new ways.
Noni Ford is a freelance writer based in the Midwest and a graduate of the Indiana University Media School. She’s worked in voice coordination, independent film, and literary management, and primarily writes film criticism and short stories.