In 2020’s “The Mole Agent,” the Chilean director Maite Alberdi got an elderly investigator into a nursing home and filmed his attempts to uncover potential abuse there. The senior facility residents were told that they were to be the subjects of a documentary. Which was true, but definitely in a different way than they clearly believed, on the evidence of the movie itself. By the end of the picture, I was asking myself whether the tender and compassionate portraits of old folks in need the movie presented actually justified the arguable ethical breach committed by the filmmaker and his lead performer, who took on the title role.
Alberdi’s new movie, something like a straight-up documentary rather than a drama hybrid, is even more intimate, so much so that almost all of its running time only puts two people in the frame. Two prominent people—at least in their home country. Augusto Góngora was a television newscaster and interviewer from the early 1970s onward; he also produced films and books and acted in a miniseries for the great Raul Ruiz. His wife, Paulina Urrutia, 17 years his junior, is an actress with a solid filmography, not much of which has traveled to the United States. Alberdi’s movie chronicles their life together as they cope with Góngora’s condition, Alzheimer’s disease.
Hoo boy. Having lost two reasonably close relatives to the condition and one other family member still dealing with it, I consider Alzheimer’s a particularly hateful ailment. And as you might imagine, my reflexive reaction to a documentary such as “The Eternal Memory” might be to recoil from an open flame. This is despite having gotten a lot out of the harrowing fictional journeys of Michael Haneke with “Amour” and Gaspar Noe with “Vortex.” And, of course, I should know better here, too. Because even in a documentary, what makes the subject matter resonate, if at all, is how it’s framed. Alberdi frames this movie around the ethos Góngora stressed as a journalist.
Because, if you haven’t been connecting the dots already, Góngora was at his job for the Pinochet regime. And reported its abuses insofar as he was permitted and/or able and then continued to dig into those abuses after Pinochet was put out of power. For Góngora, national memory—the refusal to forget the crimes of its rulers and their henchmen in the military and the police (which under Pinochet were pretty much the same)—is crucial. This makes his loss of personal memory all the more tragic and galvanic.
Much of the movie was shot during the height of the Covid pandemic, which meant that Alberdi wasn’t even in the room with the couple. Camera work in many of the contemporary scenes was done by Urrutia, who is a kind and infinitely patient spouse—and also sometimes focus-challenged, not that it ultimately matters.
Among the more vexing effects of Alzheimer’s goes beyond memory loss. Often the sufferer has no idea of where they are or what they’re doing there. “Where are my friends,” Góngora laments in a late-night rant, one of the sort that can sometimes take hours to pull a patient out of.
These and many other moments are painful to watch. And they do make one wonder, again, about whether one ought to be watching them at all. There’s no narration in this movie, no text explaining when Góngora was diagnosed. (Or, for that matter, when and how he consented to be filmed. Not that I doubt he did—before his condition deteriorates, he acknowledges that he’s involved in a documentary—but it would be useful information.) We piece together Góngora’s relationship with Urrutia through often poignant-in-hindsight archival footage. It’s not until rather late in the movie that we learn Góngora has two children from a prior relationship, and we never find out how that relationship was resolved.
Instead, we witness the degeneration of a noble mind and an interrogative soul. “I’m not myself anymore,” Góngora says to Urrutia late in the movie. “I think you are,” she responds. “No,” he says. And he repeats that word several times. We’re left with the question of what a person can hang on to when everything about their identity and values leaves them.
Now playing in theaters.