Recent years have seen several acclaimed films that deal with the agony and heartbreak of Alzheimer’s Disease and other forms of dementia: Still Alice, The Father, Amour, Vortex, and Away from Her, to name a few. The latest is The Eternal Memory, which chronicles in intimate detail the deterioration of a once sparkling mind and the undying love of a caring spouse.
Augusto Góngora was a Chilean journalist who hosted a television news program during the 1980s that dared to be critical of the Pinochet regime. In later years, he strove to chronicle that era in the hopes that the country would never forget. He also fell in love with actress Paulina Urrutia, and after being together for nearly twenty years, they were married. When he began to suffer from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, she became his primary caregiver, and over four years their journey was captured on camera.
Director Maite Alberdi’s previous film, The Mole Agent, also dealt with elder issues—a undercover investigation into abuses at a nursing home. Here, she intercuts footage of the couple in their daily lives with archival footage of their professional accomplishments. During the period of filming when the pandemic made it impossible for a crew to be present, Urrutia handled the camera. The technical rough edges of these portions of The Eternal Memory only emphasize the unfiltered look we’re being given into their lives.
That rawness is a double-edged sword to a degree. Unlike the other films listed above, Alberdi’s is a documentary focused on an individual undergoing mental deterioration. This raises issues of consent which the film never addresses. It seems hard to imagine that the devoted Urrutia would subject her husband to this sort of scrutiny without knowing he approved, but acknowledging this within the movie would eliminate any lingering queasiness. (And, in fact, the film’s press notes describe how Góngora encouraged the project.) The only other non-fiction portrait of an Alzheimer’s sufferer I can think of is Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, but I don’t recall that film showing its country music star subject in as distressing a condition as this one does.
As noted, portrayals of this unforgiving disease have resulted in accolades for the actors and filmmakers involved: Julianne Moore and Anthony Hopkins won Oscars for Still Alice and The Father, respectively; director Michael Haneke took one home for Amour, which earned an additional four nominations—a significant haul for a somber, foreign-language film. One thing, though, that all these films have in common is that their protagonists are all economically secure. The couple in Amour are retired music teachers living in an elegant Parisian apartment; Moore’s Alice is a linguistics professor at Columbia; Hopkins plays a retired engineer in another well-appointed flat; and in Vortex, Dario Argento plays a film critic and author trying to look after his fading wife.
Add to that list the real-life, famous, and professionally successful couple in The Eternal Memory, and one can’t help but wonder at this pattern. Of course, what’s terrifying about Alzheimer’s (or most any uncurable illness) is that it strikes blindly, without consideration of material status or moral worthiness. And, as a plague that saps the mind, it can seem especially tragic when its victims pursued intellectual lives and careers. But the loss of memory, of the ability to recognize loved ones, of even one’s sense of self, must be equally cruel no matter the previous circumstances of life. And for those without the means to devote their lives to caretaking, without access to professional care, without a comfortable home to live out their final years, it must be even more heartbreaking. Maybe that’s why these stories never focus on less fortunate folks: the result would be too upsetting (even for notoriously confrontational filmmakers like Haneke and Gaspar Noé) to bear.
The sadistic irony at the heart of The Eternal Memory, and what elevates it from a heart-tugging portrait of love and despair to something more philosophical, is that we’re watching Góngora, a man who did more than most to preserve national memory during years when it was dangerous to do so, losing his own. Góngora even co-wrote a book titled Chile: The Forbidden Memory, which chronicles Pinochet’s abuses. And now, thanks to this film, his and his wife’s brave confrontation with Alzheimer’s will not be forgotten. At the closing credits, Urrutia was still caring for Góngora, but he passed away in May of this year at the age of 71. (Opens Friday, Sept. 1, at the Living Room Theaters)
ALSO THIS WEEK
If you’ve never heard of writer-director Neil Breen before, Cade: The Tortured Crossing might seem to have been inspired by Tommy Wiseau’s The Room or James Nguyen’s Birdemic, two so-bad-they’re-funny midnight movie mainstays. But Breen’s been churning out his own brand of loopy, horribly green-screened, self-starring brain-melters since well before either of those infamous clunkers. His latest is a sequel, apparently, to his 2018 effort Twisted Pair, and focuses on identical twins (both played by Breen) involved in a plan to turn mental asylum patients into an army to save humanity. Or something.
[Puts on grumpy old man hat] This stuff, including Cinemagic’s VHS Nights and the Hollywood Theatre’s B-Movie Bingo (see below) can be fun, but in an era when skillfully made, independent, non-ironic cinema can barely manage a foothold, is this really how we want to utilize the limited resource of theater screens? The answer, of course, is yes, because they sell tickets. (Clinton Street, Saturday; Hollywood, Sunday)
For anyone who had their appetite for adventure whetted by Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Cinemagic is showing the original Indy trilogy on the big screen. Bring you own bullwhip. Check their website for dates and showtimes.
FRIDAY: The Hollywood Theatre kicks off what they’re calling Sex-tember with Basic Instinct; 1994 B-movie Dark Angel: The Ascent (Cinemagic, on VHS); The Goonies (Kiggins Theatre, through Monday); Pan’s Labyrinth (Academy, all week); Roman Holiday (Kiggins, through Monday); Terminator 2 (Academy, all week)
SATURDAY: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (Hollywood); The Pink Panther (Hollywood, on 35mm); A Streetcar Named Desire (Cinema 21)
MONDAY: Office Killer (Hollywood);
TUESDAY: B-movie multi-hyphenate David Heavener wrote, directed, and starred in 1996’s Fugitive X: Innocent Target (Hollywood)
WEDNESDAY: Pour one out for Mike Schank during a screening of Wisconsin’s own American Movie (Hollywood)
THURSDAY: Michelle Yeoh gives one of her earliest action-packed performances in 1986’s Royal Warriors (Cinemagic); a pair of French filmmakers explore the outsider performance artists of Austin in Texas Trip, A Carnival of Ghosts (Clinton)