The Eternal Memory
(Chile, 84 min.)
Dir. Maite Alberdi
Programme: World Cinema Documentary Competition (World Premiere)
Maite Alberdi touched audiences at Sundance 2020 with The Mole Agent. Her wily caper followed the exploits of Sergio, an aged undercover actor investigating the conditions of a long-term care facility. The film injected an unexpected jolt of sentimentality into at-home moviegoing that year as COVID-19 lockdowns underscored the film’s portrait of neglect for the elderly. Moreover, quarantine life accentuated the portrait of loneliness that Sergio observed in the facility. The Mole Agent went on to score an Oscar nomination while moving audiences worldwide.
It’s a high bar for any filmmaker to meet the expectations set by an underdog festival hit. However, Alberdi meets and surpasses all hope The Mole Agent teed up with her latest documentary, The Eternal Memory. The film offers a striking companion piece to The Mole Agent with its nuanced observational portrait of Chilean couple Paulina Urrutia and Augusto Góngora. They’ve been together for years, yet Alberdi enters their story as it approaches its final act. Augusto has Alzheimer’s disease and it’s advancing. When The Eternal Memory introduces audiences to Paulina and Augusto, she’s actually introducing herself to him. Augusto’s reached the point at which he can’t always recognize his own wife.
A Golden Years Love Story
Filming over the course of four years with a skeleton crew, Alberdi gets intimate access to the couple’s story. Paulina shaves Augusto with care. She washes him, she dresses him, and feeds him. She also orients him when his loses his bearings in the home they’ve shared for years. No matter how often she explains who she is and where they are, though, she remains unwavering. This is what love looks like.
Paulina, an actor and former politician (she served as the equivalent to a Minister of Culture), and Augusto, a journalist and filmmaker, admirably don’t hide his condition. Paulina brings Augusto to her theatre space. He participates in performances and dances. They incorporate his memory loss into roles and keep him active. At times, when the camera turns to Augusto as he sits with the audience, there’s a familiar glaze of confusion. This openness and vulnerability, though, is part of who they are.
However, Augusto’s condition inevitably worsens as the years go by. The exhaustion on Paulina’s face is nakedly clear, but she holds strong to keep him grounded. For example, the documentary crew accompanies Paulina and Augusto to a restaurant for a dinner date. The camera observes as they discuss the past. Paulina quizzes Augusto tenderly, mining his memory bank with hopes to keep moments alive. He can’t recall their first date and, most poignantly, doesn’t remember why they never had children. (Later references to Augusto’s children relate to a prior marriage.) It’s here in this tender moment that reality sets in for Paulina. No matter how devotedly she cares for Augusto, he is fading quickly.
Life Under Lockdown
The situation worsens as the COVID-19 pandemic hits and confines them to their home. The pandemic seems to accelerate Augusto’s state, too, as prolonged isolation confuses him. Paulina now has to remind him again why the news keeps reporting deaths, why they’re always at home, and why his friends never see him.
Paulina also assumes an additional role of documentarian as she takes over camera duties. However, in becoming an active recorder of their story, Paulina gives The Eternal Memory an additional layer of access that even the small crew couldn’t always capture. She’s records the best and the worst as peaks and valleys bring drama to the quarantine days. Nothing is off the table, and the film adds to the stories of the pandemic. It shares how people coped when situations became doubly difficult with limited to no access to supports. If Paulina is a figure of strength in the first act of the film, she’s a rock in the second.
Archives and Emotional Memories
Despite the elusiveness of memory, though, the news reports of the pandemic add a connective thread. Augusto recalls with clarity some key stories he broke as a reporter. He remembers the worst of Pinochet, stories of police brutality, and colleagues lost to violence. Alberdi weaves archival footage of Augusto’s reportage into the story. As images of the younger man report on Pinochet’s regime, with the film’s premiere coinciding with the 50th anniversary of the coup d’état, Alberdi’s film evokes the memories that endure in archives. Moreover, as the violence of the past haunts Augusto, the archival tissues echo Paulina’s own exercises in remembering. The film reminds us that memory is a constant and collective process.
As The Eternal Memory connects past and present while observing Augusto’s state of mind, the film tenderly underscores the power that emotional responses hold in our memory. Even when it takes Augusto hours to recognize Paulina, the flicker of love that returns to his eyes illustrates how the heart stores memories of its own.
By offering such a frank and intimate window into Paulina and Augusto’s lives, Alberdi finds a heartbreaking story. However, the film harnesses the positive spirit that Paulina resolves to uphold while caring for her husband, thus offering welcome moments of levity and grace. While it’s a sad story, The Eternal Memory defines their tale not by tragedy, but by love. You won’t soon forget it.
The Eternal Memory premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.