Memory House is little more than a mélange of affectations and overt symbolism, opaque for its own sake and succumbing to the worst arthouse pretenses.
In a recent piece on the just-concluded 2021 edition of the Locarno Film Festival, critic Daniel Kasman writes, “one way of looking at the film festival world is that it is now so rife with conventions, tropes, and trends… that it has its own industrial aesthetic and storytelling standards, akin to the old studio systems.” He might very well have been talking about something like director João Paulo Miranda Maria’s Memory House, a repository of so many familiar tics and stylistic signposts that one would be forgiven for imagining they’ve already seen this film before even the first act ends. Here, Miranda Maria wants to interrogate the still-pervasive colonization of Brazil by Europeans and the racism perpetuated against Black Brazilians, but, as Michael Sicinski puts it, the resulting film “purports to tell us about the world we live in while not resembling it in the slightest.” Cristovam (the great Antônio Pitanga) is an immigrant from the north who’s come to the rural south to find work at a large, industrial dairy plant run by a German corporation. The plant is surrounded by a small town full of blonde-haired, blue-eyed workers and their families, as well as a few local Brazilians who are ostracized in their own land. The film begins with the company informing Cristovam that his pay is being cut, and that if he protests, he’ll lose his pension. Stunned and angry, Cristovam retreats to an old, abandoned shack on the outskirts of the town, where he communes with nature and begins to feel connected to the animals that both wander the countryside and reside in captivity within the dairy farm. The film proceeds along these lines, with alternating scenes of Cristovam at work in a blinding white containment suit, wandering amongst the sleek, metal machinery and images of him sulking around the decrepit halls of the shack. Cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta, best known for his work with Sebastián Lelio, envelopes scenes in a neon haze and colored filters, which has the effect of making it look like every A24 film from the past decade. To that point, Memory House indeed frequently takes on the patina of a horror film, with its droning, dirge-like electronic score and the careful, symmetrical compositions that Miranda Maria favors. But it’s a reductive visual scheme, as the film oscillates between static master shots and slow, creeping dolly shots that very gradually push in on an image. There’s little variation, and it has a lulling effect that becomes monotonous. Equating workers to cattle is heavy-handed enough, but filming the sterile modernism of the factory in the exact same way as one films scenes of bucolic nature flattens everything into the same tired formalism.
Eventually, Cristoval has a vision of a jaguar entering the house in the dead of night, which he then promptly stabs. When he awakes the next morning, he discovers the body of a child. This event sends him off the deep end, as he begins aggressively confronting townspeople and imagining himself the savior of Jenifer (Ana Flavia Cavalcanti), a young Brazilian woman who hangs about the local bar fending off unwanted advances from leering workers. But rather than energizing an already oblique narrative, things descend even more quickly into metaphor and symbolism (which, admittedly, might be more digestible to those more familiar with Brazilian folklore and mythology). Curiously, the film eventually imagines Cristoval becoming subsumed into a cow, in effect taking on its essence, and then committing a second act of brutal violence. It’s visually striking, if conceptually confused, and the film grows so diffuse and opaque that by the end one is more likely to be confused than intrigued. Pitanga commands the screen, and it’s a pleasure to watch him, but he has not so much a character to play as a series of poses and affectations. Miranda Maria has talent, certainly, and obviously has some big ideas he wants to get express in his work, but these pro-forma stylistic tropes smother the film in a glossy artificiality, where cryptic meanderings are confused for enlightenment.