The Eternal Memory is a tender portrait of two people dealing with the loss of memory and identity. Arturo Góngora is a prominent Chilean journalist and television presenter who, having chronicled Pinochet's dictatorship and its "systematic erasure of collective consciousness," now finds himself battling an erasure of his own, Alzheimer's disease. Paulina Urrutia, a prominent actor and a valiant woman, is the wife who takes care of him. Through director Maite Alberdi's film, we witness their loving bond and Arturo's heartbreaking deterioration.
The film takes its time, all to devastating effect, starting with Arturo in his calm, accepting phase, quietly amused at his lack of recall. His wife explains yet again, on yet another sunlit morning, who she is and why she's there. The world is brand new every morning. She gets him into the shower, towels him dry, and literally guides him through his day, at his side always. Arturo accompanies Pauli to the rehearsal of her play, and dances along with the actors, out of sync. Of a simple task, Arturo tells Pauli, "Let's do it together. Because if I do it on my own, with my Alzheimer's, I'll make a mess of it." But as tentative and childlike as Arturo is at this stage, his days full of playful walks and much teasing and joking, he has not yet felt the full brunt of his awful disease.
Ms. Alberdi's footage is interspersed with home videos of them in their vibrant prime. A mustachioed Arturo, armed with a microphone and bravely dodging tanks and interviewing protesters, Pauli in performance on stage and being appointed Minister of Chile's National Culture and Arts Council in a grand ceremony. We see them marrying after having been together for 20 years. Their preparations to confront the Covid pandemic add even more urgency. As The Eternal Memory progresses, Arturo's flashes of lucidity and cheerful compliance eventually growing frustrated and hostile at his situation. Pauli is always there. She is a tiny wonder, and her unconditional love for Arturo propels the film.
It's to Ms. Alberdi’s credit that she saw a film in it at all. Take a second to appreciate the documentarian's dilemma, shooting footage as formless and esoteric as this, not knowing if you do, indeed, have a film. Ms. Alberdi comes in late to Arturo's condition and captures moments that are profound and intimate. Her camera's presence is a matter of trust for everyone involved. Her style is unobtrusive, which suggests she gave Pauli small cameras to place around the rooms, the better to catch moments of vulnerability in inviolate settings, such as the marriage bed. A crew off camera is unimaginable. Ms. Alberdi lets the story unfold without the aid of a narrator. The effect is shattering.
Ms. Alberdi is the first Chilean woman to be nominated to the Oscars for The Mole Agent in 2020. Her other features include The Lifeguard -- her first film -- in 2011, and The Grownups in 2020. The Eternal Memory has already won the Grand Jury Prize for Outstanding Documentary at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.
Elder dementia, in all its mystery and angst, has been at the center of films ranging from The Notebook (2004) and Away from Her (2007) to, more recently, Anthony Hopkins' Oscar-winning turn in The Father (2020) and Gasper Noe’s Vortex (2021). There remain enough Baby Boomers and Gen X'ers who have cared for a parent or weigh their own fate to make this a fertile topic.
The Eternal Memory has death on its mind, understandably, and delves likewise into the meaning of memory in politics and the arts. While not overtly political, the film does have that subtext. Arturo references "the death that brought life to Chile's […] democracy." Ms. Alberdi sees irony in Arturo and Pauli’s professions, preserving the political and artistic truth for the public record, and the home movies for their personal turmoil. Fittingly, in flashback, we watch the two of them in better days visit a crumbling glacier.
The Eternal Memory is a quiet gem of observation, and a testament to a special kind of love, loyalty, and resilience.
The Eternal Memory. Directed by Maite Alberdi. Released by MTV Documentary Films. 2022. 84 minutes.