The Eternal Memory


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Eternal Memory
"Striking in its intimacy." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The tragedy of memory loss meets the romantic joy of enduring love, while the togetherness of a couple in the present is contrasted by the turmoil of a nation’s past in the latest documentary from Maite Alberdi.

The Eternal Memory - which won the World Documentary Competition Grand Jury Prize at Sundance - is a deeply moving consideration of the life of TV journalist Augusto Gongora and his actress wife Paulina Urrutia, who was once also Chilean minister of culture. Together for more than 20 years, Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in 2014 and Alberdi’s film unfolds over the four years to 2022 as his condition worsens, including capturing the couple’s marriage in 2016.

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There have been strong documentaries on the subject before, including Bicycle, Apple, Spoon and Dick Johnson Is Dead, but Alberdi’s is striking in its intimacy - it’s hard to believe there is anyone in the room except the couple most of the time. Paulina is seen constantly prompting Augusto to talk about his life and memories, while also integrating him adeptly into her worklife, so that he is as active as possible.

The first portion of the film is a celebration of this as we see the pair living life to the fullest extent despite the limitations of Alzheimer's. Paulina takes a playful attitude towards her husband’s forgetfulnes as she prompts him to recall the basics each day, their love for one another evident in every look and gesture. As the film progresses it’s heartbreaking to watch as this task becomes increasingly difficult for Paulina as Augusto’s confusion increases and his condition begins to make him paranoid. She remains remarkable in the face of a level of powerlessness as he clutches his books as though someone might steal them and demands, “Help me”, calmly talking him down from his emotional state of distress.

The irony of Augusto’s predicament is also a fundamental part of Alberdi’s follow up to her Oscar-nominated The Mole Agent. He was part of a clandestine news operation during Pinochet’s dictatorship that acted as a reminder of the disappeared and was a co-author of Chile: The Forbidden Memory - although the idea is allowed to sit in the background rather than be pushed into the overtly political. Expertly edited by Carolina Siraqyan, the unvarnished moments in the present between Paulina and Augusto are interwoven with footage of both of them at work and archive home video that offers an equally moving glimpse of the bond they shared before the illness entered their lives. We’re all familiar with the devastation that Alzheimer’s can cause but Alberdi’s achievement is to put us in touch with the deep love and care that often endures between family members despite all its challenges.

Reviewed on: 07 Feb 2023
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Augusto and Paulina have been together for 25 years. Eight years ago, he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. Both fear the day he no longer recognises her.

Director: Maite Alberdi

Year: 2023

Runtime: 85 minutes

Country: Chile

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