The Eternal Memory: Maite Alberdi’s unexpectedly romantic documentary depicts Alzheimer’s in the context of coupledom

Maite Alberdi’s documentary unfolds as a grand love story as she tracks the effects of Alzheimer’s disease on the Chilean broadcaster and historian Augusto Góngora and his loving care from his partner, actor Paulina Urrutia.

The Eternal Memory (2023)

Augusto Góngora wakes up in bed next to a woman he has no memory of. Happily, both see the funny side – they’ve been around the block a few times. She’s an actress, Paulina Urrutia, she tells him – and she has been his partner for the last 20 years, his wife for the last three. The house he’s in is the home they’ve made together. Augusto, who has dementia – Alzheimer’s, we’re later told – greets this marvellous news with wondering delight and astonished laughter; Paulina matches him.

Since her 2014 festival hit La Once, aka Tea Time, which presented the monthly café-meeting rites and camaraderie of a circle of ageing schoolfriends, Chilean documentary-maker Maite Alberdi has leaned in to stories of ageing, loss and what lingers – call them being-of-age stories. For the Oscar-nominated The Mole Agent (2020), she went undercover in a care home with a senior-citizen sleuth, finding crimes of omission, a lost matriarchy starved of connection. It followed and echoed The Grown-Ups (2016), which found similar neglect and exclusion among a class of midlife Down’s syndrome patients rebelling against their infantilisation. The short I’m Not from Here (also 2016), meanwhile, anticipated the subject of The Eternal Memory, depicting an 88-year-old Basque-born woman who cannot keep hold of her memories of having lived in Chile since she was 18.

Augusto Góngora in The Eternal Memory (2023)

Urrutia and Góngora – who died this May, after the film’s award for best world cinema documentary at Sundance – were a Chilean power couple: she a renowned actor and unionist who served as culture minister under President Michelle Bachelet in the late 2000s; he a journalist and author who directed and hosted the underground reportage series Teleanálisis in opposition to the Pinochet dictatorship in the 1980s. True to his commitment to sharing the truth, he agreed to let Alberdi film his Alzheimer’s across 2018-22. Urrutia’s comfort on camera is also evident, whether the film is observing her at work with Augusto in tow – and invading her rehearsal stage to join a dance – or in close-up set pieces, such as a delightful dinner date in which she quizzes his memory of their marriage.

It’s a less narrative-driven film than The Mole Agent. We know where this story will go; Alberdi isn’t concerned to itemise Augusto’s decline in the fashion of recent fictional treatments of dementia: Amour (2012), The Father (2020), Vortex (2021). (In nonfiction, Alan Berliner made a more forensic study of Alzheimer’s as it afflicted the writer Edwin Honig in First Cousin Once Removed, 2012.) She frames Augusto’s condition in the context of coupledom: it falls to Pauli, his lover, to be his round-the-clock carer and companion; we see few other characters. This situation was intensified by the coronavirus pandemic, when the two were locked down without a camera crew: Alberdi sent them video cameras, and Urrutia had to get comfortable behind the camera as well. The isolation of those months probably did Augusto no favours, and while much of the film basks in his smiles and positivity, we do see some of the bewilderment and horror of Alzheimer’s in a few later Lear-esque scenes of lost rage.

But Alberdi is concerned to build a portrait in the round; to show Augusto in bloom as well as blight, looking backwards to the courage and conviction of his rebel TV broadcasts, and the long flush of his love with Pauli. She can sample from the Teléanalisis archives, with Augusto in full throat against the amnesia decreed by the Pinochet state, and from the couple’s home movies – a rich, intimate vault of self-documented adoration, long before their lockdown filming. If the film were only tracing Augusto’s decline, it would carry a pinched irony – time and nature doing Pinochet’s work, the erasure of oblivion. But in Augusto’s own words, he has been a sower. Pauli reads him the dedication he wrote to her in a copy of Chile: Prohibited Memory, a defiant history of Chile’s slide into tyranny to which he contributed: “Those who have memory, have courage, and are sowers.” Alberdi intercuts a 1989 speech Góngora makes advocating the reconstruction of memory “not to anchor us in the past… but to be able to generously face the future”. His words, his work, his images, including now this film, are all part of the house he built, the trace he left, and live on.

 ► The Eternal Memory is in UK cinemas now. 

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