Widely translated since its initial publication 16 years ago, Colombian novelist Hector Abad Faciolince’s “Oblivion: A Memoir” was an acclaimed reminiscence of his father Hector Abad Gomez. That crusading academic’s public criticism of institutionalized inequities led to his 1987 murder by paramilitary assassins. Retitled “Memories of My Father” for a belated U.S. release (selected for Cannes 2020, it was a casualty of the COVID-canceled edition), veteran Spanish director Fernando Trueba’s screen version plays to his own familiar strengths, creating what’s primarily a nostalgic flashback to the author’s boisterous family life in 1970s Medellin.
The sharp political divisions and dangerous climate for dissent that ultimately claimed Gomez’s life become a somewhat vague backdrop in this warm-and-fuzzy approach. It does not make for the most penetrating history lesson. Still, those seeking a pleasantly expansive, somewhat old-school dose of laughter and tears — one not so distant from the director’s Oscar-winning “Belle Epoque” three decades ago — will enjoy this handsomely produced tale. New York City’s Quad Cinema is hosting a short Trueba retrospective this week to launch Cohen Media Group’s Stateside arthouse release, whose bookings currently stretch into mid-December.
It opens in 1983 Turin, Italy, where collegiate Hector Jr. (Juan Pablo Urrego) has gone to study. He flies home, however, upon being informed that Hector Sr. (Javier Camara) has yet again been ousted from his university professorship, this time via “compulsory retirement,” and that a public tribute/protest is planned in his honor. Reunited with the fam for that occasion, Junior flashes back to his childhood 12 years earlier, a shift signaled by DP Sergio Ivan Castano’s widescreen images going from gleaming black and white to ripely hued color.
In 1971, the boy known mostly by his nickname Quiquin (Nicolas Reyes Cano) is a wee rascal indulged by his mother (Patricia Tamayo as Cecilia), five sisters and especially papa. The parents are on the same page in their progressive sociopolitical attitudes, though mom pays lip service to her very Catholic upbringing (one relative is an archbishop), while dad is a fountain of impish secular-humanist wisdom.
At the start, they welcome a foreign guest (Amerindie helmer Whit Stillman) who’s collaborating with fellow medical researcher Gomez on a “Futures for Children” project evaluating health risks and potential fixes in “marginal neighborhoods.” It is just one more realm in which Hector Sr. will tick off the powers that be, as he continually rails against poverty and corruption in his capacities as a lecturer, journalist and activist. For such offenses he’s branded a “Marxist” on the radio, the family home graffitied with “Comunista.”
But in the film’s long central section, those issues are blunted by the director and scenarist brother David Trueba’s primary focus on the mild comedics of domestic life. Chafing at growing up in a house of women, bratty Quiquin joneses for his father’s attention — he’s inconsolable when dad is briefly forced to work abroad — and largely gets it.
You might wonder how the real-life Gomez managed to excel in so many professional arenas while being such a hands-on father. But that’s only if you’re better acquainted with his career; the Truebas’ film mostly pushes specifics of the patriarch’s activism into the background. They provide little context for viewers unfamiliar with Colombia’s human rights woes and violent power struggles during the timespan depicted. Instead, the emphasis is mostly on Quiquin’s hijinks, the extended family’s internal dramas, and dad as a lovable goofball in Almodovar regular Camara’s cuddly, near-sitcom portrayal.
After 80 minutes, we’re back in the early Eighties (as well as black and white), and the film’s final stretch does push matters of national unrest closer to the foreground. Still, young-adult Hector Jr.’s attempts to get laid strikes a tritely conventional note, while his railing at Dad for overattention to “other people’s problems” (rather than his own kin’s) comes out of nowhere. There is tension built from Sr.’s oblivious to death threats amidst escalating general strife. But when the worst happens, the film overestimates the depths of emotional resonance earned by giving pretty much every family member their own attenuated scene of tearful histrionics.
As a result, “Memories of My Father” isn’t as inspirationally powerful as it could be, because the senior Hector’s convictions (and the conditions that fuel them) aren’t illustrated vividly enough — a few moments touring a slum or watching a passing protest march don’t cut it. Also, it’s hard to tell whether Hector Jr. as both boy and man is meant to be quite so unappealing; the film occasionally admits his faults, but in the father’s same clucking, benevolent tone. Whereas mom appears an intelligent, strong-willed person, yet plays a passive narrative role here, while the sisters are represented mostly as an undifferentiated, chattering chorus.
Nonetheless, Trueba keeps things moving within and between eras in a graceful, affectionate, assured way that’s always enjoyable, even if the film overall seems a bit frivolous given its larger themes. Stylistically, it has a confident bravado that doesn’t distinguish much between scenes of humorously hectic home life and riots on campus. All tech and design factors are first-rate, though Zbigniew Preisner’s original score is one more area in which a slightly generic sentimentality is applied, when something with a little more edge might’ve better served the events portrayed.