The Eternal Memory is one of the most romantic documentaries ever put to screen. It’s also one of the most tragic. But anyone who has loved, fought, and lost will understand that those sentiments tend to go hand in hand. While the latest film from Oscar nominated director Maite Alberdi revolves around a couple navigating the tumultuous waters churned up by one of the worst diseases known to humankind, The Eternal Memory also effortlessly showcases the power of unwavering love and support. It’s the rare example of a film or an experience that can uplift one’s heart while breaking it at the same time; a powerful catharsis that comes wrapped in hardship.
Chileans Augusto Góngora, an esteemed journalist, and Paulina Urrutia, an actress and former culture minister, have been a couple for over two decades. They’ve only been formally married for a small portion of that time and have been coping with major life changes during this period. Several years ago, Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, with Paulina doing her best to balance her career with his increasing need for supervision. Alberdi observes the wife and husband without interference or interviews, documenting the various ways that Paulina strives to ensure Augusto’s final years are filled with love, encouragement and affection, but once the 2020 global pandemic hits (and Urrutia essentially has to direct the film herself), his condition starts to aggressively worsen, and she has to find inner reserves of patience and strength to keep the mounting, inevitable sadness at bay.
The Eternal Memory (produced in part by Pablo Larraín) sounds nothing like a feel good movie, but it is a hopeful one in its own unique way. Alberdi (The Mole Agent) explores Augusto and Pauli’s lives in flashes of brilliant detail. Through intimate home movies, both past and present, Alberdi examines the foundations of a strong, loving, and healthy relationship put to the greatest stress it’s ever likely to face. Góngora and Urrutia come from different backgrounds, but it’s immediately apparent that they understand each other on a deeply emotional and intellectual level; a perfect match even when one of them is slowly losing their memory to the ravages of an incurable disease.
The Eternal Memory poignantly makes the viewer feel every ounce of weight in Augusto and Pauli’s situation. As the film goes on, their worst fears start to become realized, and when one of them is too ill to process what’s happening, the other will struggle to keep things together. At times, Paulina forces herself to laugh to keep from uncontrollably weeping, somehow mustering up the tremendous strength to love Augusto without caveats. It takes almost otherworldly levels of resolve to make someone feel unconditionally loved when that person is at their absolute lowest; when they are at their most confused, mistrustful, skittish, restless, and terrified by the world around them. But within that shared burden also lies the hope that runs throughout Alberdi’s work. Paulina rises to the occasion so bravely that it makes one wish they would have someone like her in their corner under similar circumstances. Their shared courage in the face of overwhelming uncertainty is breathtaking.
Alberdi also finds a unique way to metaphorically and logically tie his subjects’ careers and the dark political times of Chile under Augusto Pinochet’s regime into a narrative about the more hidden tolls of Alzheimer’s disease. At one point, while looking back on news footage he produced around the time of Pinochet’s downfall, Góngora excitedly exclaims that the side of the just had won the day. That rich history that he has in his memory is fading, as is the one he shares with his wife. Soon, one fewer person will be around to share such stories. It’s a battle lost to time, as Góngora and Urrutia continue to fight an unwinnable war. While reflecting on battles they managed to navigate positively, Alberdi finds a unique parallel that marries the past and present both subtly and powerfully.
The Eternal Memory covers territory that many who’ve watched loved ones slip away before their very eyes will immediately identify, and those who haven’t will have their eyes opened to the love that can remain in dark spaces. It’s sometimes too intimate to take without getting chills. Throughout The Eternal Memory there remains kindness and reassurance, but even if Paulina had decided on camera that she couldn’t bear the pain of watching her beloved deteriorating, there’s more than enough evidence on display that she went above and beyond to do all she could for him. We should all be so lucky.
The Eternal Memory opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, Fifth Avenue Cinemas in Vancouver, Cineplex Forum in Montreal, and Landmark Edmonton City Centre on Friday, August 18, 2023. It opens at ByTowne Cinema in Ottawa on Saturday, August 26.
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