THE STORY – Chilean couple Augusto and Paulina have been together for 25 years, but Augusto was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease eight years ago. Both of them fear the day he will no longer recognize her.
THE CAST – Augusto Góngora & Paulina Urrutia
THE TEAM – Maite Alberdi (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 84 Minutes
Stories of memory loss have been portrayed to heart-wrenching degrees on film. From Sarah Polley’s “Away From Her” to Florian Zeller’s “The Father,” the narrative exploration of watching a loved one slip away can hit very close to home. Joining this company as a nonfiction entry is Oscar-nominated director Maite Alberdi’s “The Eternal Memory,” a poignant love story between Chilean writer/television producer Augusto Góngora and Chilean actress/culture minister Paulina’ Pauli’ Urrutia. When Augusto is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Pauli becomes his primary caregiver. As the disease progresses, their relationship remains infinite in the passage of time and uncertainty. The documentary unfolds through the couple’s everyday routine, capturing moments of intimacy, joy, and sorrow. Woven together with present-day footage, archival home videos, and newsreels shed meaningful light on Augusto’s identity, both on a personal and historical level. While Augusto tries to hold onto who he is, Pauli reminds him that even though he may not recognize her (or himself), he can always count on her. He is not alone, which is the essence of “The Eternal Memory” radiates at its core. Snapshots of Augusto’s life are explored from various angles, with a political context highlighting how his journalistic work reaches society. Everlasting in its art form, “The Eternal Memory” is a thoughtful, lovingly made recollection of unconditional love and identity.
Following the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Mole Agent,” about a private investigator in Chile who unearths elder abuse at a retirement home, Alberdi’s latest solo directorial feature explores a similar topic: mortality and its inevitability. Living the process of a loved one being diagnosed with an illness comes with the feeling that the worst possible outcome is imminent. Between appointments, treatments, warning signs, discussions of expectancy, and preparations for ‘the day,’ still, nothing can truly prepare you for loss. All one can do is (try to) be present and take each moment as it comes. Pauli embodies a like-minded approach in “The Eternal Memory.” Her unwavering dedication and presence in Augusto’s life are a constant display of warmth, patience, and daily remembrance of who they both are. Some of the most powerful scenes in the documentary are found in small instances that highlight the couple’s intimacy; for instance, when she reads to him on their walks or when he watches her perform in a play. As well, their heart-to-hearts offer remarkable insight, not only into the intricacies that make up their relationship but also Augusto’s sense of humor and musings on his life’s work.
Alberdi brings an emotionally present and sensory approach to telling the couple’s story. She seems to feel her way through each and every moment, letting her subjects guide which memories to unlock and when. Without the presence of talking heads, structured narration, or voiceover prompts, one feels all the more immersed in the unvarnished stories Augusto and Pauli share. Alberdi’s observational and candid style of filmmaking allows for their relationship to shine. Adding to the candidness, Pauli occasionally steps in to record footage, as the documentary was filmed during COVID-19 lockdowns. She captures a devastating moment when Augusto feels his children and friends have disappeared. Something strange is happening to him; he pleads for help and doesn’t recognize Pauli. His confusion and despair are moving to watch and a reverberating example of how memory and identity go hand in hand. In that moment, one can sense the hopelessness of feeling trapped in a disintegrating mind.
The observational quality in Alberdi’s direction mirrors Augusto’s quality as a political journalist, television host, and author. During the Pinochet regime, an authoritarian dictatorship that seized power over Chile through the 1970s and 80s, Augusto reported on the regime’s human rights violations and various crimes. He possessed a fearlessness in talking about subjects that were not treated as mainstream in Chilean news reporting. In the regime’s aftermath, he fought to keep the dark days of Chilean history in public light to achieve what the doc calls collective remembrance. The documentary touches on how memories of the dictatorship continue to haunt Chilean culture and society to this day. Augusto himself reflects on a dear friend of his who was killed during the regime; so vividly etched in his mind, the memory brings him to tears. The political and historical elements of “The Eternal Memory” emphasize the extent to which Augusto’s work defines his legacy as well as his character. How this context is integrated into the documentary feels very much aligned with its core subjects of memory and identity.
A scene of archival footage from 1989 shows Augusto discussing a book he co-wrote, titled “Chile: La Memoria Prohibida.” He speaks to the importance of Chileans needing to rebuild their emotional memory after years of dictatorship, the trauma of which is still felt. The archived footage is woven with the present-day as Pauli reads excerpts of a book to Augusto. One line that resonates deeply is that memory should help “recover identity and recognize the truth, without which there’ll be no reconciliation or reunion.” The documentary reckons with collective memory just as much as with individual memory. As a result, it stirs up fascinating questions about how people’s recollections can be affected by the way they internalize history and what happens when the truest fragments of one’s mind are impacted by the pain of trauma and illness.
The balance of a love story with Chilean history helps frame Augusto as someone whose existence is felt in so many stages of life. How he will be remembered is through his occupancy in the memories of others, most intimately Pauli’s. There is something incredibly poetic about their love story being told through this art form. While Augusto lives through the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, each and every moment captured (whether by Alberdi or Pauli herself) creates new and everlasting memories of him. The thoughtfulness of this documentary lives on eternally, not only for the filmmakers but also for audience members discovering Augusto and Pauli’s story. “The Eternal Memory” has already started to make an impact on public consciousness, given the positive reviews from the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. It also won the festival’s World Cinema Grand Jury Prize in the documentary competition, an accolade previously awarded to Shaunak Sen’s “All That Breathes” and Jonas Poher Rasmussen’s “Flee,” both of which went on to receive Oscar nominations.
Now and then, personal memories of a lost loved one are evoked. Sometimes it’s by an art form in which real life is often reflected back to you. “The Eternal Memory” is a difficult story to shake for that reason (among many others). Not only due to the heavy subject matter but also the incredible compassion and rawness with which it is filmed. In addition to the direction, the editing by Carolina Siraqyan and cinematography by Pablo Valdés (both of whom worked on Alberdi’s “The Mole Agent“) help to create the feeling of watching a commemorative scrapbook full of ebbs and flows. The lack of structure makes it all the more intimate, and you get to know the subjects mostly in natural settings (primarily their home). The documentary moves at a gentle pace, focusing on the everyday emotional journeys and routine activities Augusto and Pauli go through together. Beyond historical achievements and public personas, it is also through small and private moments that memories are made. In these moments especially, even as one’s memory becomes lost, the pieces of who they are still remain.