VSHilian director Maite Alberdi is particularly interested in older people and people with mental health problems. One of his previous works, The Grown-Ups, focused on adults with Down syndrome struggling with independence, while his international breakthrough, The Mole Agent, featured residents of a nursing home, some with of dementia. This latest, painfully powerful film, The Eternal Memory, carves out a comfortable place in the director’s thematic wheelhouse with its portrait of a Chilean couple, totally devoted to each other, but challenged by the gradual worsening of husband’s Alzheimer’s disease.
At the same time, the film also touches on Chile’s recent history, another topic that Alberdi has explored previously (see Propaganda, Dios). How could it be otherwise given that the husband, Augusto Góngora, was a presenter and journalist who made clandestine documentaries on the situation in Chile under Pinochet and published books on the consequences of this situation? Meanwhile, his partner and future wife, Paulina “Pauli” Urrutia (they married 20 years after they met, a scene shown here in homemade footage) was an activist, actress and minister of state under the socialist president Michelle Bachelet.
While their conversations hint at the rich and varied lives they have led and still lead – the film shows Pauli performing with his company in a theater, impressively taking to the stage at one point as Augusto moves with an amused perplexity around her – the film becomes more and more interested in the intimate and private world of their couple. Most of the time we see them trying to survive each day as Augusto’s condition worsens. Every morning, it seems, she has to present herself cheerfully to him and only later can she put the big photo of them on their wedding day back on the wall, because otherwise he complains that he doesn’t don’t know who these people are.
Alberdi is able to draw on rich archival resources not only to show Augusto as a youth, at work interviewing Chileans about their own lives, but also as an individual who enjoyed making home films about himself and his two children from a previous marriage. and Pauli. You can tell, just by the way he frames and films Pauli, and the way she lovingly responds to him, that the two were madly in love from the start. This love is also visible in every frame of Alberdi’s images, and reinforced by the obvious affection and respect felt for the couple by the filmmaker, surviving even the darkest moments.
Towards the end, we see Augusto’s usually warm and sensual personality fracture through anger, disorientation and despair as his memory fails him and he becomes increasingly confused, unable even to recognize himself in the mirror. The devastating and unforgivable irony is that after Pinochet’s fall, he wrote so movingly about the need for the nation to collectively remember what happened. Sometimes God is just too sneaky when he causes his creations to suffer; but at least Alberdi’s humane and deeply empathetic cinema offers some balm.