An elderly man and a middle-aged woman wake up in bed together. She both introduces herself to him and tells him who he is. He is Augusto Góngora, and she is his wife, Paulina Urrutia. The scenario is familiar to anyone who has known someone with Alzheimer’s. Augusto accepts Paulina’s gentle, patient explanation as if it’s a pleasant bit of morning news. Paulina, or Pauli as she prefers to be called, is a veteran actor of the stage and screen. Augusto was once an esteemed journalist and media producer. That background means the Chilean documentary The Eternal Memory can pull from a deep well of video materials to illustrate the past lives of these characters. At the same time, director Maite Alberdi can draw parallels between the couple’s struggle with a disease that attacks memory and their country’s broader struggle to maintain its history.
The Pinochet dictatorship (1973–90) looms over this film, as it does over a good deal of other Chilean documentaries (notably, many works by the revered Patricio Guzmán). During those years, Augusto was a reporter for Teleanálisis, a dissident pirate television news program that sought to report the truth that the government would prefer to bury. This was a time of mass repression and thousands of disappearances, and even decades later, physical, psychological, and societal scars remain. After liberal democracy was reasserted in the 1990s, Augusto became an activist for preserving and maintaining the evidence of Pinochet’s crimes, rallying people by reminding them of what happens to those who forget their history. For The Eternal Memory, this backstory is both its central metaphor and bitter irony. Augusto, who dedicated his life to bearing witness and remembering, now cannot help but forget.
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The film made me think of Lewis Hyde’s book A Primer for Forgetting, in which he examines the different forces that cajole us to alternately retain or discard certain parts of the past. In some ways, he argues, insistent memorializing can negatively affect a society, allowing people to nurse collective resentments. Memory can be a chain, and forgetting can be freeing. “Every act of memory is an act of forgetting,” he writes.
Hyde also acknowledges the necessity of memory to avoid repeating atrocities, pointing to the aftermath of the Civil War and the continued whitewashing of Indigenous genocide in the United States as examples. This is precisely the work that Augusto and Pauli pledged themselves to — he as a journalist, she as a popular actor, as well as Chile’s first minister of culture. Archival quotes from Augusto dovetail neatly with Hyde’s sentiment: “It is very important to us to reconstruct memory,” he says during a press conference in the ’90s. “Not to be anchored in the past, because we think [it] is always an act that has a sense of the future. It is always an attempt to know oneself.” He goes on to say, “I think we Chileans also need to rebuild our emotional memory” and “Without memory, there is no identity.”
Would this mean, then, that after eight years of declining memory due to Alzheimer’s, Augusto has no identity? Instead, he appears to embody the constant need to reinforce and reconstruct memory, as Pauli devotedly reminds him of who he is and what they have done. Archival footage of Augusto’s news reports, Pauli’s performances, and their personal home videos fill in the gaps of his memory and the audience’s understanding of their personalities and relationship. Alberdi’s editing positions this footage as active examples of the reconstructions the couple goes through. And cinema is itself a kind of constructed memory, as this film makes vivid.
Whether Alberdi intends it or not, there’s a disquieting suggestion that forgetting may in fact be an inevitability, that efforts to preserve history may ultimately be futile. The film’s title could be paradoxical; is any memory truly eternal? But this inevitability does not mean that efforts to preserve history are not worthwhile. Augusto may have forgotten, but Pauli carries on his work. He may not always recognize her, but her steadfast care inspires trust in him — even if that trust has to start anew each time he forgets.
The Eternal Memory is currently playing in select theaters.