If you’re thinking “bummer,” think again: From its first moments, “The Eternal Memory” announces that this will be as gentle and uplifting as the first words spoken by Paulina “Pauli” Urrutia as she awakens her husband, Augusto Góngora. Softly, with patience and humor, she reintroduces herself to the man she’s been living with for more than 20 years; she reminds him that he was once a journalist and that she’s an actress, and that he has two grown children. These facts unfold to his surprise and delight, and slowly but surely, Pauli guides Augusto into the present, where his grasp on his own identity — even reality itself — is becoming increasingly fragile. Today, this revelatory opening scene suggests, Augusto will have a fighting chance at remembering who he was, and who he still is. Things may be falling apart, but his essence is strong, as Augusto’s moments of stunning, sudden clarity make clear.
Alberdi, who directed the beguiling 2020 documentary “The Mole Agent,” once again proves a sensitive chronicler of subjects at their most vulnerable. Filmed in Augusto and Pauli’s handsome brick-and-timber home in Chile, and punctuated by home movies and news footage of Augusto in his prime, “The Eternal Memory” mostly eschews voyeurism for its own maudlin sake. With few exceptions, Pauli engages with her husband by affirming his experience, using touch, laughter, music and dramatic performance to provide hints of their past. (“How beautiful,” he repeats over and over again, when he’s reminded of how much he loves her.) It might take some prodding, but Augusto eventually recalls reporting on the murderous years of the Pinochet regime, as well as his role in allowing his country to heal — politically and emotionally — once the junta had been defeated.
The cruel irony, of course, is that Augusto himself is being “disappeared” by his disease, much like Pinochet disappeared tens of thousands of his political enemies. Acknowledging the past, which Augusto once insisted was crucial for Chile’s evolution, is now for him being undermined at every turn. “The Eternal Memory” possesses moments of sublime beauty — intimate moments between a still-devoted couple, shots of Augusto moving through a house filled with light, verdant views and birdsong. Then there are the terrors brought on by sundowning, when he’s convinced “they” are going to steal his precious books, and he can’t remember who Pauli is or what she’s doing there.
The tragic truth of “The Eternal Memory” is that Augusto’s decline is going only one direction. (He died in May, just before “The Eternal Memory” made its Washington premiere at the DC/DOX festival.) Between that endearing opening scene and the film’s bittersweet final moments, it’s clear that Alzheimer’s has taken a dramatic toll. The film’s most difficult sequences might lead some viewers to question what is to be gained by peering into someone’s life at its most physically and psychologically unguarded. But Augusto’s own career bearing witness provides the bracing answer. Late in the film, Pauli reminds Augusto that he dedicated a book to her when they first met. It was called “The Forbidden Memory,” about Chile’s traumatic past and tenuous future, and his words to Pauli could easily describe the film the two would make about his brave final years. “There is pain here,” he wrote. “But there is also a lot of nobility.”
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains mature thematic elements and brief strong language. In Spanish with subtitles. 84 minutes.
POST AUTHOR: Ann Hornaday