“Why do things you have no idea about?” Paulina Urratia can recall asking Augusto Gongora, her husband of over 20 years, when he told her he’d taken a role in a Raul Ruiz movie in “The Eternal Memory,” unconcerned that he’d be camera shy when he had reported the news on air for years but concerned that acting was something entirely different. She wasn’t wrong when director Maite Alberdi plays a clip from the film in question in which he appears stiff, but Augusto told her at the time that it made him feel alive. These days, it would be a decision that he might not necessarily be able to make for himself, slowly losing his memories due to Alzheimer’s, but nonetheless demonstrating a desire to remain active that his wife admirably takes up responsibility for, bringing him to rehearsals for a play she acts in, taking walks where she reads to him and putting glasses on him so he doesn’t miss a solar eclipse, to which he knowingly teases “I’ve already lost my brain” when she worries what damage staring at the sun could have.
Like Alberti’s previous film “The Mole Agent,” which saw a perfectly fit senior citizen infiltrate an old folks’ home as if he were a spy, the director sees something different in aging and the peril it brings than most, having the love story between Paulina and Augusto rise to the surface rather than his deteriorating mental state. He may not be able to remember her when he wakes up in the morning, but she handles it with good humor, occasionally amusing herself by asking questions she knows the answer to and changing the details on frivolous parts of their history to see what he’ll say, such as suggesting that she cooked on their first date. However, his Alzheimer’s appears to be taking as much a toll on her, if not more than him when he can seem blissfully unaware of what memories he’s lost while she’s all too conscious of it, occasionally allowing her disappointment pierce the brave face she puts on.
The individual tragedy is obvious, but it seems especially cruel when Augusto was intent on preserving the history of the atrocities committed by the Pinochet regime in Chile that never made it onto the general public’s radar because of his iron grip on state-run media. Alberdi judiciously inserts clips of Augusto’s TV appearances, rebuilding a cultural consciousness as his is slipping away in the present and when his condition affects his short-term memory the most, it’s heartbreaking how Paulina can become almost resentful of the past which still lives in his mind so vividly when he fails to recognize her at times. Still, there is never a feeling in “The Eternal Memory” that you’re actually looking back as Paulina and Augusto, living in an airy double decker house, adorned with flora that grows unabated, that’s as much of a testament to what they’ve built together as anything else, continually comport to the moment at hand, a reality for Augusto when he knows no other and a compromise for Paulina that she’s constantly willing to make, yielding a portrait of unconditional love that is bound to leave an impression.
“The Eternal Memory” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th at 2:15 pm at the Ray Theatre in Park City, January 26th at 3:05 pm at the Redstone Cinemas in Park City and January 27th at 3 pm at the Park Avenue Theatre in Park City. It will also be available online from January 24th through 29th.