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'Memoria' is a marvelously strange sonic detective story

Justin Chang calls Memoria, starring Tilda Swinton, a sonic detective story.

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Other segments from the episode on May 13, 2022

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, May 13, 2022: Interview with Anthony Roth Costanzo; Review of Memoria

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DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The film "Memoria" made our critic Justin Chang's list of the best movies of 2021. Now it's getting an unusual long-term theatrical rollout, playing in multiple cities across the U.S. through the end of the year. The movie, which stars Tilda Swinton as a woman living in Colombia, was written and directed by the Thai filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Justin says it's a sonic detective story that's truly transporting. Here is his review.

JUSTIN CHANG, BYLINE: I'm a huge fan of the Thai writer-director Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which doesn't do much to dispel the widely held assumption that he makes movies only a critic could love. Weerasethakul's films, like "Tropical Malady" and "Syndromes And A Century," certainly demand close attention. They're slow-paced and contemplative, steeped in Thai folklore and Buddhist belief, and they have little interest in conventional narrative. They're also thrilling and deeply moving. If you go into them with your eyes and ears wide open and take the time to adjust to their rhythms, it's hard not to fall under their spell.

Weerasethakul's new movie is called "Memoria," and while it's as marvelously strange as anything he's ever made, it's also a bit of a departure. It's his first feature shot entirely outside Thailand. And it also marks his first time working with a movie star; in this case, the great Tilda Swinton. She's quietly mesmerizing as a Scottish-born botanist named Jessica, who lives in Medellin, Colombia. She's recently come to the city of Bogota to visit her sister, who's recovering from a mysterious illness.

The movie begins when Jessica is awakened in the middle of the night by a loud bang.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUD BANG)

CHANG: In the days to come, Jessica will hear that bang again and again. And soon, she realizes that she's the only one who can hear it.

"Memoria" is a sonic detective story and it follows Jessica around town as she tries to figure out what the sound is and why she's hearing it. She visits a young sound engineer named Hernan, played by Juan Pablo Urrego, who tries to help recreate the noise using prerecorded sound effects.

Speaking in a mix of Spanish and English, Jessica describes the sound as "a big ball of concrete that falls into a metal well." And Hernan asks her how big the ball is.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MEMORIA")

JUAN PABLO URREGO: (As Young Hernan Bedoya, speaking Spanish). How big?

TILDA SWINTON: (As Jessica Holland) Bang. And then it shrinks. I mean, it probably sounds differently in my head.

CHANG: Jessica's investigation leads her in a lot of strange directions. She visits an archaeologist who's studying some recently excavated human remains that may have something to do with the sounds she's hearing. She spends some more time with Hernan, but then he suddenly vanishes, leaving her and us to wonder if she's losing her grip on reality.

Eventually, Jessica travels to a nearby mountain village and meets an older fisherman, curiously also named Hernan, played by Elkin Diaz. Could they be two different versions of the same person? It wouldn't be a surprise in Weerasethakul's world, which is full of parallel realities and reincarnated spirits.

Hernan says he's both blessed and cursed by his ability to remember everything that has ever happened to him, which provides a clue as to the significance of "Memoria's" title. It all builds to a climax that left my jaw on the floor as we finally find out what's been causing that sound. Though, as always with Weerasethakul, the revelation yields more questions than answers.

But while "Memoria" has its share of baffling moments, Swinton's restrained presence anchors every scene. There's something especially emotional about the time Jessica spends with the older Hernan, in which we see two people who have never met forge an inexplicable yet profound connection. You can't take your eyes off Swinton, even when she's simply sitting still and quietly listening to someone speak. You're reminded in these moments that just listening to someone can be an act of radical empathy.

There were a lot of mixed reactions last year when the film distributor Neon announced that "Memoria" would only be shown on the big screen as part of a never-ending road tour-style release. As of now, there are no plans for the movie to be made available on DVD or streaming platforms. There's something refreshing about this approach, which treats "Memoria" not as just another chunk of disposable streamable content, but as a work of art whose crystalline images and intricate sound design demand to be experienced under the best possible conditions.

I hope you'll get to experience "Memoria," as it's one of the most transporting movies you'll see or hear in a theater this year.

BIANCULLI: Justin Chang is the film critic for the LA Times. He reviewed "Memoria," starring Tilda Swinton.

On Monday's show, a little-known chapter of LGBTQ history about a forgotten women's prison in Greenwich Village. We talk with Hugh Ryan, author of "The Women's House Of Detention." He says prison is an example of how queer and trans people have been disproportionately represented in American prisons. Hope you can join us.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICA WILLIAMS'S "BONGO'S WALTZ")

BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our senior producer today is Roberta Shorrock. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with additional engineering support by Joyce Lieberman, Julian Herzfeld and Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Joel Wolfram. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESSICAL WILLIAMS'S "BONGO'S WALTZ") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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