The Eternal Memory Is a Refreshing, Life-Affirming Look at Loss

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The Eternal Memory Is a Refreshing, Life-Affirming Look at Loss

What is man without his memory? Distinguished Chilean journalist Augusto Góngora encounters this question time and time again during a career spent reporting on the brutalities his country faced under the rule of Augusto Pinochet—brutalities that his government would have liked to obscure. “Those who have memory have courage,” Góngora wrote in a 1997 note to his partner, Paulina Urrutia. So what happens, then, when Augusto starts to lose his own memory? Directed by Maite Alberdi (The Mole Agent), The Eternal Memory chronicles Góngora’s struggles with Alzheimer’s disease, and Urrutia’s efforts to help him maintain his sense of self.

Despite inherently existing through the opaque prism of memory and its relationship to identity, The Eternal Memory is surprisingly simple, and often lighthearted. Told largely through a series of conversations between Góngora and Urrutia, the couple is not, by any means, limited to discussing the heavy subject matter at hand. They reminisce on how they met, tease one another, flirt. And while the documentary certainly has its fair share of heavy moments—Urrutia is devastated when Góngora forgets who she is; they discuss death; they recall the cruelties of their former government—the atmosphere crafted is far from one of impending doom. 

Instead, their relationship seems almost strengthened by the illness. Through her treatment of her partner in the wake of his prognosis, Urrutia teaches us that the most loving gesture you can extend to someone else is simply savoring their memory. This life-affirming attitude is reflected in the patient way that The Eternal Memory is shot, courtesy of Pablo Valdés. Often, a frame of a bird or sunlight glinting through a tree will linger for a while, reminding us that this is not a film that cares about big moments or shock value—rather, at its very core, it’s a snapshot of two people in love.

One of the things that makes this “love over everything” message feel genuine and not at all cloying is that Alberdi gives Góngora and Urrutia the opportunity to craft their own story. Not once does the director insert herself into the film, and the only moments during which her subjects even seem aware of the camera is when they are struggling to figure out how to use a tripod.

This creative choice can be traced, in part, to one unexpected factor: COVID-19. Because of the virus and social distancing protocols, Góngora and Urrutia become responsible for a lot of their own filming. As a result, they’re the ones choosing what aspects of their relationship is shown—a hurdle that I suspect pushed The Eternal Memory in somewhat of a different direction than Alberdi originally anticipated. It’s fun to actually get to see the answer to the question “If a movie was made about your life, what would you choose to show?”

And while much of The Eternal Memory comprises scenes of Góngora and Urrutia living their day-to-day lives, Alberdi expertly balances them out with archival footage: A young, handsome and charismatic Augusto delivering news reports in grainy clips, a magnetic Paulina performing in stage productions. By doing this, Alberdi not only provides further context to the lives that the couple are attempting to preserve, but also bridges the gap between the pair in their youths and older age, making for a more comprehensive, all-encompassing investigation into the idea of personal history. 

It’s nearly impossible to talk about Alzheimer’s without forefronting misery, anger and despair. It is a cruel and callous disease that destroys lives piece by piece. Perhaps the greatest feat of the courageous The Eternal Memory, then, is Alberdi, Góngora and Urrutia’s ability to broach the subject with all of these emotions—but with an emphasis on life, not death.

Director: Maite Alberdi
Writer: Maite Alberdi
Release Date: August 11, 2023

Aurora Amidon is a film journalist and passionate defender of Hostel: Part II. Follow her on Twitter for her latest questionable culture takes.

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