Through films as varied as “The Father,” “Dick Johnson Is Dead” and “Relic,” dementia and neurodegenerative disease have been extensively portrayed on screen in recent years — a subgenre that carries a trigger warning for anyone with off-screen experience of the subject. For those who think they cannot stomach one more, Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory” treats inexorably sad material with a lighter, more lyrical approach than most — focusing less on the day-to-day ravages of living with Alzheimer’s than on the slippery, transient concept of memory itself, as formed, held and lost both in the individual mind and a wider collective consciousness. Key to the film’s thesis is that its subject is Augusto Góngora, a veteran Chilean political journalist who labored through the 1970s and 1980s to bring the iniquities of the Pinochet regime to public attention — and later dedicated himself to conserving that national memory for future generations.
Yet even as the film grapples with Chilean history through the prism of one man’s faltering recall, “The Eternal Memory” is not as densely conceptual or intellectual a work as, say, Patricio Guzmán’s “Nostalgia for the Light,” which mapped Pinochet’s legacy in literally astronomical terms. Instead, it’s the simple love story between Góngora and his devoted wife and carer, former Chilean culture minister Paulina Urrutia, that gives Alberdi’s film its spine and its heart — and won it admirers at Sundance, where it landed both the top prize in the world doc competition and a global distribution deal with MTV Documentary Films. Berlin is the next festival stop for a film that could well match the success of Alberdi’s previous feature, the Oscar-nominated “The Mole Agent.”
The quirky genre affectations of that film are absent from Alberdi’s follow-up, which also dwelt on the vagaries of aging and mental deterioration; the warm, gentle touch of her filmmaking, however, is consistent between the two. The tone is set by the opening scene, as Urrutia — 17 years her husband’s junior — softly wakes Góngora and informs him that she’s “here to help [him] remember.” Only gradually does he comprehend that she’s his wife, and that they’re in the house they’ve shared for over 20 years; his disorientation is allayed, however, by his beaming comfort in her presence. It won’t always be so cozy between them. Filmed over four years (and beginning some time after Góngora’s Alzheimer’s diagnosis in 2014), “The Eternal Memory” observes them from a stage where his memory is less consistent than their mutual affection, to the plunging point where he can’t recognize his own face, let alone hers.
The film’s timeline is considerably expanded, however, by extensive archival footage of Góngora in his professional prime and the couple in younger, easier times — pulling from both newsreels and home video, deftly braided into the whole by editor Carolina Siraqyan, often in a way that implies the temporal blurring and skipping of memory itself. The patchwork offers a fuller picture of both partners’ formidable careers — hers as an actor turned politician, his as a TV newsman turned political and cultural commentator — and of the contented life (and house) they built for themselves after meeting in the 1990s. Still, we’re led to wonder how selective Urrutia is being in jogging her husband’s memory, painting a picture of an entirely blissful history together.
Conflict comes only in the present tense, as Góngora’s worsening health pushes him into states of panic and despair that she can’t so easily soothe. “How long is it going to be like this?” he wails. “I’m alone, man.” The film can assure the audience, if not its subject, that this is hardly the case, as Urrutia’s care is constant even at its most sorely challenged: Supplemented by a slightly over-sweetened score and a soundtrack of wistful love songs, there’s unyielding tenderness to scenes where she walks him around the garden, traces the crevices of his face with a knowing, loving hand, or reads to him from his own books.
The film’s title appears to riff on one of those: After the collapse of Chile’s military dictatorship, Góngora contributed to a volume called “Chile, the Forgotten Memory,” reflecting on how they could ensure the country’s unhappy past could be kept vivid and instructive even to people unable to remember it first-hand. “This book is only helpful if memory helps us recover our identity,” he wrote back then, and “The Eternal Memory” makes much of the irony of this statement now applying to its writer’s personal history. This insistent parallel between individual and national consciousness never culminates in quite the rhetorical kicker Alberdi seems to be seeking, but there’s power in it just the same: a reminder of how our best efforts to keep and curate memories — for ourselves and others — can be thwarted by time.