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‘Memoria’ is a haunting, transcendent, unforgettable film

Tilda Swinton plays a woman who sets out to discover the source of a mysterious sonic boom and finds a far deeper mystery instead

Tilda Swinton in "Memoria." (Neon)
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(4 stars)

In filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s eerily poetic, unforgettable “Memoria,” Tilda Swinton plays Jessica, a British botanist in Colombia who awakens one night to a mysterious, loud boom that, over the course of successive days — or maybe weeks, it is deliberately unclear — seems to haunt her, both figuratively and literally. She seeks out the services of Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), a young sound engineer, hoping Hernán’s expertise and digital effects library might help her re-create the pitch, echo and timbre of the tone, which she likens to a “big ball of concrete falling into a metal well, surrounded by seawater.” (Jessica’s first assumption was that the sound must have been due to construction next door.)

Jessica also consults a doctor (Constanza Gutierrez), complaining of lingering anxiety and insomnia, in the wake of the noise. Elsewhere — outside, after an encounter with a stray dog; in a restaurant, while dining with her sister (Agnes Brekke) and her brother-in-law (Daniel Giménez Cacho); finally, by a rural brook — Jessica hears the sound again, sometimes multiple times.

But beneath this straightforward (if enigmatic) premise, there is a gradual slippage, as if the plate tectonics of Weerasethakul’s seemingly solid medical/mental mystery were subtly rearranging themselves, like puzzle pieces shifted by an unseen hand. As they lose their narrative mooring, the various parts of the whole have the effect of rearranging your own consciousness, in a way that leaves your perceptions feeling profoundly altered, perhaps permanently. Is that not the measure of all great art? (“Memoria” won the Jury Prize at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, shared with “Ahed’s Knee.”)

Jessica’s sister — who is hospitalized with an unspecified illness early in the film — wakes up in her bed talking of a curse. Jessica’s brother-in-law informs her that there is no construction anywhere near where Jessica is staying. The doctor Jessica goes to resists prescribing medication, handing her patient a religious pamphlet instead. And Hernán, who has been especially patient and solicitous with Jessica’s request, suddenly disappears. It isn’t that he has left — it’s as if Hernán never existed. Even those who seem to be his work colleagues inexplicably insist there is no one there by his name.

Is Jessica delusional? Is she experiencing auditory — and, in the case of Hernán, visual — hallucinations? The film meanders noncommittally, lyrically, refusing to say or care. But it is in the third act of “Memoria” that things get really weird, in a way that is both baffling and beautiful.

True to its title, “Memoria’s” theme is memory and its shifting seams and sandlike substrate, on which the footing of the film — and, by extension, our footing as well — is never terribly sure. Early in the film, there is a street scene in which a man falls to the pavement and then jumps up, running, while looking over his shoulder in seeming terror of pursuit. His fall and subsequent panic follow a bang — not Jessica’s, but perhaps a gunshot, this being Medellín — yet there is no immediate or obvious threat, only what seems to be the memory of one.

In the film’s glacially unhurried, almost transcendent climax, Jessica meets a second man (Elkin Díaz) who has the exact same name as her sound engineer friend but is much older. Over the course of a strange, long encounter, Hernán No. 2 tells her many bizarre things, including that he never dreams but remembers everything. “I’m like a hard disk,” he says, lying down to nap at one point and — well, I’ll let you discover what happens next yourself.

A strange connection is gradually established between Jessica and Hernán, one that hints at both reincarnation — a theme of Weerasethakul’s “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Remember His Past Lives” — and telepathy. “You are an antenna,” Hernán tells Jessica.

As “Memoria” came to its open-ended conclusion — more like a beginning than an end — I walked out feeling like a bit of an antenna myself, like maybe we all are receivers of a sort. In my case, the feeling was as if the station that had been playing inside my head all my life had just been tuned to another channel, and I wasn’t sure if I could, or even wanted to, get the old one back again.

PG. At the AFI Silver Theatre. Contains some mature thematic elements and brief strong language. In English and Spanish with subtitles. 136 minutes.

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