Stephen Mallarme, Silvio Rodríguez, Toni Morrison, Aleksandr Pushkin, Dolly Parton, Bob Dylan, Dylan Thomas, Thomas Wolfe, James Baldwin, Marcel Proust, Anton Chekhov, Barbara Streisand, Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Loretta Lynn, Tony Bennett, and everyone who takes a memoir writing class, has mined memory. But what about memory loss? Who is fearless and robust, yet deft enough, to explore the myriad ways in which Alzheimer’s Disease draws back a curtain on who we end up as when we can no longer recognize ourselves in the mirror?
Chilean filmmaker Maite Alberdi rolls a film crew into the newly built home of Chilean journalist Augusto Gongora, who, eight years before, was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. After the 1973 military coup in Chile, Gongora was one of the daring young journalists who went underground to report on the crimes of the military coup that overthrew the Unidad Popular [Popular Unity] regime headed by President Salvador Allende and set up a military dictatorship in the Moneda Palace in downtown Santiago, just a short walk from the Opera House. Gongora reported on repression by the State. These reports included the all-encompassing sweeps that rounded up left-wing students and labor activists, dispatching them to the city’s now-notorious stadium, where monstrous acts such as kidnapping, waterboard torture, adoption of the dead captives’ children by families of the generals, and the murders and “disappearances” of the thousands who opposed the Pinochet regime were ordered by the factotums who made up the officer corps that crushed the Popular Unity government. [In 2011 while on assignment in Santiago, I was waiting at a bus stop, when a bus came along; its destination: “ESTADIO.” Even almost 40 years post-coup, the sight of that placard brought up spinetingling recollections.]
The filming, Gongora’s idea, began shortly after he was diagnosed. His wife, Paulina Urrutia Fernandez, an actress, who became the first Minister of Culture when the the Pinochet siege ended, has undertaken Gongora’s care. We see her re-introducing herself to her husband, and her husband to himself, each morning. She prods him with patience and gentle humor to let her explain who she is and who he is. Tender-hearted, and affectionate, the former journalist is clearly in touch with his feelings, even if he cannot put a face to the name of the person in front of him who inspires them or remember that his children’s names are Javiera and Cristobal.
Pauli recreates a semblance of the life the couple shared before the disease took hold. Like a childcare teacher who has mastered an intentional approach, she offers Augusto three books and asks him to select one for their morning walk. She reads aloud to him as they go. Trigger warning: non-Alzheimer’s spouses will feel envious of the anticipation and considered attention that Pauli gives to her husband’s needs. She talks him through his daily shower, spoon feeds him his cereal, pulls him into onstage rehearsals, and when anxious thoughts burst through his sleep and wake him, Pauli materializes to reassure him that if he follows her directions, the horrific anxieties about people being in the house, or him losing his books in a home invasion, will pass. The books will be there, his friends and family will visit, and he can count on her to be there for the rest of his life. All of us except Augusto take her at her word and trust her commitment, even when we can detect desperation in her voice.
Alberdi’s montage plays with subtleties of South American seasonal changes, while it hangs with the persistence of the protagonists’ iron character tempered by the parsing of Augusto’s and Pauli’s willingness to cast their lot with mutual admiration and respect. It does another thing: it showcases a photographic method that can make the viewer feel like part of the cast. The editors are generous. They accept footage from 50 years ago that centers itself in the mass protests, young people taking the streets, and a unionist identifying himself by simply stating, “I am a worker.” The family photos from the post-Pinochet period work effectively to present missing pieces in the puzzle that stands in for Gongora’s lost memory, especially in how he has been experienced by others, over a lifetime. A strictly “show don’t tell” approach, it obviates the temptation to resort to colleagues’ hagiographic tributes to do the “former” Gongora justice. Once Pauli gets him going, resources that are still in play have him reacting to the slit throats, the indignities, even if the names of beloved friends and comrades who lost their lives at the hands of Pinochet’s butchers are impossible to remember. The nighttime segments come from cameras that Pauli has put in place, so that nothing is lost in an otherwise precarious-seeming constellation. They gift us with visuals of sequences that can move a viewer to tears.
Audiences for The Eternal Memory will come from all generations, and a spectrum of those whose lives are indentured to the vagaries of Alzheimer’s Disease: the confident, the fearful, the chicken- and stout-hearted. Also present will be those who have spent a lifetime seeking to reconcile the massive Chilean protests with the “why” of the Social Democratic Popular Unity government, led by Salvador Allende, having failed so predictably, owing to his total disregard for counsel from other statesmen with respect to what history teaches us about the gruesome results of previous offers to share power with the enemy class. In this instance, Allende extended a hand to the most hated and grotesque among that class—Pinochet and his generals. The Eternal Memory not only uses the camera to close some of the holes in Gongora’s temporal and parietal lobes but serves as a call to never forget the lacunae in Allende’s political approach that translated into tragic losses that populate a morbid, blood-soaked history lesson for all to absorb so that it shall never be repeated.