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‘The Eternal Memory’ review: A moving chronicle of a marriage challenged by Alzheimer’s

The heavily trafficked subgenre of the neurodegenerative disease drama can be so punishingly bleak that it often feels like a thankless plunge into misery. But every now and then a film comes along that sheds light on such irreversible circumstances with fresh perspectives. Mia Hansen-Løve did that last year in narrative form with Have a nice morningbringing emotional complexity and empathy to a young widow’s struggle to cope with the challenges of her life, including her intellectual father’s slide into dementia. Chilean documentary filmmaker Maite Alberdi brings similar qualities to the painfully tender non-fiction slice-of-life study, The eternal memory.

An Oscar nominee in 2021 for The mole agentAlberdi makes her directing hand virtually invisible by observing her subjects from a discreet distance, allowing them to be narrators of their own story without speaking directly to the camera.

The eternal memory

It comes down to

Love among the ruins.

That makes the film – from the production company Fabula of Pablo and Juan de Dios Larraín – a very personal experience. It is also given additional layers of meaning by the sad irony that Augusto Góngora, the veteran Chilean TV journalist and political commentator who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2014, made it his mission to bring back the country’s painful memories of the military dictatorship of keep Pinochet alive. Significantly, it is one of his best-known publications Chile: the forbidden memory. The mundane struggle he wages – one day more cooperative than the next – to maintain his own receding memory is heartbreaking.

Driving that struggle is Góngora’s partner of 25 years, the actress turned arts and culture minister Paulina Urrutia, whom he married in 2016, two years after his diagnosis. Her determination, dedication and almost unfailing optimism, as she lovingly guides her husband through the mounting fog of his past and their life together, gives the film a hopeful look, even as it becomes clear that hope will only help them so far against a merciless disease.

That core of deep, rich resonant feeling takes care of that The eternal memory never strays into melodrama, even with such potentially sentimental enhancements as the soft love songs that punctuate the soundtrack. The same grace and compassion evident here were distinguishing features of it The mole agent‘s treatment of aging and elderly care.

Quickly presenting the daily ordeal Urrutia, affectionately known as Pauli, faces when she wakes Augusto in the morning, Alberdi patiently walks him through basic details he’s lost since the night before – his name, hers, their relationship, the house that they built together. She persuades him to fill in the same blank canvas over and over again. One day he has more memory than the other. And some days he falls into despair, weeping at the inaccessibility of the books that were so dear to him, even when they are on the shelves around him.

This may be purely subjective, but those moments of despondency are somehow made more touching by the presence of the couple’s cat, hovering around them in a way felines have to appear simultaneously aloof yet attuned to human suffering.

The film observes Pauli reading to Augusto, walking in the park with him, doing physical therapy, watching protectively as he makes a shaky attempt at cycling, including him in her rehearsals for a theater play. Since both subjects have been public figures in Chile for decades, there is a wealth of footage documenting their lives and work. Thinking of Augusto as a handsome, self-assured TV reporter (with a gorgeous moustache) in his younger years narrows the distance to the prematurely aged man who is often overcome with bitter confusion.

Archive video of his news reports — particularly those from an underground network when the regime seized control of public television to block coverage of their systemic oppression and brutality — deftly underscores The eternal memory‘s central paradox: that a man so instrumental in preventing his country’s consciousness from being erased should now be helpless to save his own. Images of him at the front of the protests reinforce this aspect, as do memories of his dealings with the iconoclastic Chilean director. Raúl Ruiz, seen in an interview with Góngora in which they discuss the filmmaker’s fascination with raising the dead.

These expansive memories of Augusto’s professional life and his passionate commitment to defiance and remembrance are delicately woven by editor Carolina Siraqyan into the tapestry of his quarter-century with Pauli to create a portrait that is powerfully emotional and warmly romantic. The tension can often be seen on both of their faces and the pain of forgetting deep cuts. But the strength of their relationship and the glimpses of the vibrant, intelligent man still there beneath the haze make this film as unexpectedly moving as it is mournful.

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