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Memory House 2020

Recommended with Reservations

Distributed by Film Movement
Produced by Denise Gomes, Paula Cosenza, and Didar Domehri
Directed by João Paulo Miranda Maria
Streaming, 94 mins

General Adult
Brazil; Race Relations

Date Entered: 05/20/2022

Reviewed by Andy Horbal, Cornell University Library

Memory House begins with a screen of pure white. As ominous music plays, a futuristic scene gradually comes into view. Gleaming metal tanks almost seem to vibrate in flickering light as figures clad head to toe in silver and white cleanroom suits cross the screen. One stops and slowly lifts his gloved hand to his visor-covered face. Cut to a close-up of the glove, which has a tiny hole in the middle of the palm. Cut to an extreme close-up of the hole. The frayed threads surrounding it dance in the air escaping from the suit. Cut to a screen of pure black and the sound of breathing, which is also how the movie will end.

Visually, this opening sequence is unlike anything else in the film. Director João Paulo Miranda Maria’s refusal to spell out the significance of what is happening is very typical of its style, though. The person with the hole in their glove turns out to be a man named Cristovam (Antonio Pitanga, an important figure from Brazil’s Cinema Novo film movement in the 60s and 70s) who recently moved from northeastern Brazil to an Austrian enclave in the country’s south to keep his job after the multinational corporation that owned the dairy he had been working in for the past 20 years closed it down. We learn his name in a scene in which the company’s white CEO (Sam Louwyck) informs him through a translator (Gilda Nomacce) that he will need to take a pay cut or risk losing his pension. “As an old and black man, where would he get a better option?” the CEO says as an aside.

We see Cristovam, who seems to be the dairy’s only black employee, walking home from work by himself (everyone else rides a bike, bus, or motorcycle), nursing a beer at a bar, and playing a berrante, a traditional horn made from the horns of an ox. We aren’t necessarily able to conclude that this represents a routine, though, since it isn’t clear how long he has been living this life, and because things are already changing. First, Cristovam’s relationship with his adopted community starts to deteriorate badly, beginning with a gang of adolescents wounding his dog with a BB gun. Simultaneously, Cristovam finds himself identifying more and more closely with the totems of northern Brazilian culture he uncovers in the deserted “casa de antiguidades” of the title. These two transitions feed on each other: as established by a company-sponsored rally for southern Brazilian independence which takes place near the outset of the film, the Kainz dairy and the townspeople who work for it see the north as opposed to their interests. Cristovam’s spiritual journey is also therefore one toward increasingly explicit antagonism and violence between him and them.

The most challenging aspect of Memory House is its apparent ambivalence toward its protagonist. The film’s look is defined by a number of motifs, including lighting that occasionally lends the eyes of animals and characters a supernatural glow and, most notably, a camera that slowly creeps toward a scene’s main subjects as if searching for something. The camera sometimes also moves very rapidly away from Cristovam, such as during a sexual encounter with a woman named Jandira (Aline Marta Maia), one of the town’s only other black inhabitants (along with her young adult daughter Jenifer, played by Ana Flavia Cavalcanti), who he repeatedly refers to as “cow” and later punches in the face.

As a result of decisions like this, the overall impression that the film creates is one of hopelessness. Cristovam can either, like Jandira and Jenifer, accept the indignities of assimilation or enter into a vicious cycle of resistance and revenge that must ultimately lead to his death. No other option is presented: the die, Miranda Maria seems to suggest, has already been cast. Of course, the film offers a counterargument to this pessimistic interpretation in the cars and other indicators that it takes place in the 70s and the hole in Cristovam’s glove that it starts with. Perhaps Memory House really is an autopsy of one doomed country offered up as a cautionary tale for others or just because. Maybe, though, the point is to puncture a myth of the future and remind us that failing to learn from the mistakes of the past sets one up to repeat it.

Roger Ebert Award for New Director, Chicago International Film Festival; Best Cinematography, Stockholm Film Festival; FIPRESCI Award, Cinelatino Toulouse; Official Selection, Toronto Int'l. Film Festival; Official Selection, Cannes 2020

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