Saturday, September 9, 2023

The Eternal Memory: An Indelible Story of Love and Alzheimer's

 By José Alberto Hermosillo

The Eternal Memory poster

“The Eternal Memory” is this year’s most affectionate, endearing, and absorbing documentary. A total eye-opening experience! 

After the success of “The Mole Agent,” Academy Award-nominee Chilean documentarian Maite Alberdi, in her most recent work, “The Eternal Memory,” tackles another concern troubling our elderly population: Alzheimer’s, where she vividly displays the progression of the disease in her personal, observational, and moody style.

Augusto and Paulina. “The Eternal Memory.”
“La memoria infinita,” in Spanish, unfolds in the most intimate and affecting possible way the lives of the characters’ interaction in their daily routine and natural habitat, including their fear that the memory will start fading one day.
The lineal love story follows Augusto and Paulina, a Chilean couple who have been together for 25 years and plan to stay that way until death separates them.
Augusto Góngora was a respected Award-winning author, journalist, and broadcaster who lost his memory due to Alzheimer’s. But he always remembers something: his love for his devoted wife, Paulina.
Paulina Urrutia is a theater actress, an elected public official, and an affectionate caregiver. The news of Augusto’s sickness was devastating, mainly because you have to realize someone is here, but the memories are not. Critical decisions, such as going to the hospital, staying in a nursing home, continuing on life support, or other essential family matters, must be made collectively, including Augusto’s sons from his previous marriage.
During the Covid shutdown, they ended up isolated in their house, and the news on the radio announcing the number of people dead was frightening and challenging to understand for the 60-year-old. Still, those numbers mean nothing compared to the devastating number of people who lost a loved one. Augusto’s memory tried to make sense of those numbers as Paulina explained their meaning and ramifications.
Augusto and Paulina contemplating the eclipse. “The Eternal Memory.”
As the sickness progressed gradually, Augusto left all his jobs. He was very active when he was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. He was the head of Chile’s Cultural Affairs for the National TV Department (TVN). Paulina had to continue working in theater and even in public TV to generate a source of income for their household. At one point, she had to bring Augusto to work, where he was pleased to talk to his former colleagues. She was not the only one taking care of him. It was the entire community, the barrio, who took care of him and other people with special needs. His most significant decline was during the pandemic. People’s isolation is harmful.
Maite remembers that the post-production process could have been smoother. While trying to finish editing the story, almost at the end, Paulina found in their basement an archive of invaluable tapes with Augusto’s shows, interviews, and personal memories, including powerful images of Pinochet’s dictatorship a few decades back and other vital photos with the work he did for former elected President Michelle Bachelet. According to the director, those materials were to enrich the project and must be added to the final cut. The recently found footage chronicling Chile’s internal and external movements and its transition from Pinochet’s dictatorship to actual democracy gives more meaning to the documentary.
In a Q&A session after one of the first screenings in Santa Monica, California, Paulina said, “Augusto’s sickness ran for almost ten years. It was like death in slow motion.” Still, Augusto’s most consequential act was to participate in the making of this transcendental project and preserve their love story forever. She also said that when Paulina came up with the idea of making the documentary, she was not convinced to let the film crew interrupt the most intimate moments of their daily lives and show it to the world until she saw the film. It was right after Augusto’s passing in May of 2023. Then, at that pivotal moment, she understood a long-lasting legacy of preserving his memory with this outstanding work of art, which she gratefully and humbly treasured.
Paulina Urrutia, "The Eternal Memory." Photo by José Alberto Hermosillo. Copyright © Festival in LA, 2023
Paulina Urrutia, “The Eternal Memory,” Santa Monica, California. Photo by José Alberto Hermosillo. Copyright © Festival in LA, 2023
During Covid, Paulina had to learn to use the camera and to record themselves. It ended up being a big gift during the lockdown. Paulina feels sorry for the terrible job she did with shaky and out-of-focus images. Her new job was a source of company during their most lonely moments. It was marvelous to have something to spend their days. She set the camera, pressed play, and let it run all day until she realized the battery was down. But she feels proud of her job and has enormous respect for the patience and dedication of the director.
The idea of making this original story came when documentarian Maite Alberdi read an interview in a magazine regarding a journalist who was on his way to pick up a National Award and developed Alzheimer’s disease. His wife, Paulina, cared for him lovingly and compassionately until the end. 
To get the subjects used to the cameras, weeks before the shooting, the director spent plenty of time with the characters and the crew in a small environment and made them feel comfortable acting as usual as if the team was not there; the same technique she used in “The Mole Agent.” 
In the music department, Maite used classic song covers from other Latin artists she admired, such as Cuban songwriter Pablo Milanes’ “Eternamente Yolanda.” The credits rolled with inserts of the couple’s transcendental moments. 
I felt some questions were left unsolved: his sons rarely appeared on camera, who they were, what they do for a living, and how they helped their father in the last moments. There is a brief moment where we see Augusto in a nursing home, how long he has been there, and so on. Still, the documentary is a powerful tool to help study adult behavior during the progression of Alzheimer’s disease.
“The Eternal Memory” has similarities with the 2014 Award-winning South Korean documentary “My Love Don’t Cross that River,” which presented an almost hundred-year-old couple living together in the isolated mountains of the peninsula until the end of their lives. 
The same year, Juliane Moore won an Oscar for her powerful performance in the narrative Still Alice, which in-depthly examines one person losing her memory due to Alzheimer’s disease.
Maite Alberdi, "The Eternal Memory." Photo José Alberto Hermosillo. Copyright © Festival in LA, 2023
Maite Alberdi, "The Eternal Memory," Santa Monica, California. Photo José Alberto Hermosillo. 
Copyright © Festival in LA, 2023
Maite Alberdi makes documentaries about people she wants to be with, who make her feel joy, happiness, and love. As a filmmaker, she is looking for love in different situations. She sees everyone with the potential to tell a good story.
The 2023 Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize Award-winner is produced by Rocío Jaude and Oscar winners Juan de Dios Larrain and Pablo Larrain (“A Fantastic Woman”). The couple in this story parallels Chile’s recent history and can be relatable to everyone.
After experiencing loneliness during the pandemic and other illnesses affecting our aging population, a powerful consensus emerged from the panel with Maite and Paulina: “It is our responsibility not to leave elderly people isolated.”
The heartbreaking documentary “The Eternal Memory” is not about someone losing their memory. It is about keeping the memory of the ones we lost due to Alzheimer’s disease. 
Maite Alberdi, "The Eternal Memory" & film critic José Alberto Hermosillo. Copyright © Festival in LA, 2023

Paulina Urrutia, "The Eternal Memory" & film critic José Alberto Hermosillo. Copyright © Festival in LA, 2023

The Eternal Memory - Official trailer

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