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In Found Memories (2011), Júlia Murat quietly observes the daily happenings in a tiny Brazilian village. When a young photographer arrives to photograph the few elderly residents and their homes, she finds herself captivated by the setting’s antiquity. In just a few days, she grows close to the village bread baker, who spends her days lost in memories and routine. Beautifully composed visuals in each frame paired with minimal yet expressive acting add movement to a story steeped in mystery, melancholy, and – strangely – comfort. (RMM: 5/5)
Review by FF2 Associate Roza M. Melkumyan
In the darkness of night, a lantern’s light shines like a beacon, beckoning us to it. Its carrier, the elderly “Madalena” (Sonia Guedes), walks towards us, her tired face illuminated until she reaches the kitchen counter. Setting the lantern down, she sets to work baking a batch of bread rolls. From the film’s beginning, we are entranced by the play of light, shadow, color, and texture that persists.
In the morning, Madalena walks along train tracks long since abandoned to what seems to be the only working shop in town. There, she bickers with the coffeemaker, “Antonio” (Luis Serra), who can’t understand why she insists on stacking the bread rolls her way when she knows he will rearrange them. The two continue their conversation over coffee, which Madalena berates, before attending mass with the other elderly villagers. She then sweeps outside of the local cemetery, whose gate is closed shut with a padlock before joining the aging priest and the others in a meal. Madalena ends her night with a love letter to her dead husband, “Guilherme,” who she keeps alive in her memory.
Unable to sleep in the middle of the night, Madalena lights her lantern, starts up another batch of bread rolls, and the daily cycle continues: bread, tracks, shop, coffee, mass, cemetery, meal, letter. Madalena’s life is so rooted in routine that we, the audience, find a sleepy comfort in its familiarity. Just as we begin to slip into Madalena’s haze of the mundane, a young photographer named “Rita” (Lisa Fávero) appears in the old Brazilian village, asking for a place to stay for a few nights.
Startled to see a new, young face, Madalena hesitantly offers Rita a room. The two are cordial with each other but both clearly feel uncomfortable. Rita spends her time photographing old objects and buildings, while Madalena continues with her daily routine. At night, the former watches the latter bake her bread. Like Madalena, the rest of the villagers seem uneasy around Rita because they do not know her. Over a few days, however, each warms up to her presence in turn, even allowing her to photograph them. Soon, Rita too finds herself under the spell of quiet and routine that the audience warmed to in the beginning.
In a town submerged in memories from their past, Rita breathes new life. With fresh, young eyes, she sees every rusty object, every weathered wall before her as a captivating work of art and testament to the lives they’ve seen come and go. When juxtaposed with the elderly population’s overall inability to see beauty in their surroundings, her fascination highlights the dulling of the senses that years-long monotony had rendered. Furthermore, it reminds us that age plays a pivotal role in how we view life. This village, the bread baking, and the routine is Madalena’s life. It will be her life until the day she dies. But for Rita, these few days are an encounter with the village, a mere blip in a life that stretches before her like the horizon.
Visually, director Júlia Murat treats us with beautifully composed frames rich in color and texture. As Rita looks around her temporary bedroom, we are mesmerized by olive green walls cracked and peeling from years standing upright. Next to her bed stands a cluster of wooden chairs, stacked to look like some sculpture and weathered from wear. Found Memories (2011) is filled with gorgeous scenes and settings like this, which beam so effortlessly that it feels as though all the filmmakers had to do was turn on the camera and shoot. This artistry in itself is an accomplishment, as it takes quite a bit of work to make something look easy, to allow the town’s presence to simply breathe.
In addition to stunning visuals, Found Memories features genuinely remarkable performances from its actors, who imbue their characters with life and acute emotion through facial expressions and small gestures alike. Guedes, in particular, delivers a Madalena wrought in love and heartache. Such feelings are communicated as simply as a glint in her eyes, physically gone in a second but lingering in spirit. All that you need to bring out that pain— that nostalgia for a time long passed— is the warm glow cast on her eyes from the yellow light of an oil lantern. It is as though life has stopped progressing forward, and we, along with Madalena, are trapped in a never-ending present that has only its past to look back on.
It isn’t just Madalena’s eyes that communicate her inner thoughts and feelings, but the way she moves her body. In my favorite scene, where she poses naked for a photograph, we can even map her advancement from discomfort to gentle confidence. Like a blossom’s petals, she unfurls; her hunched shoulders open, her crossed arms unfold, and her downturned chin raises as the bashful look on her face dissipates, giving way to self-assurance and the knowledge that she is beautiful. Unable to look away, we recognize the significance of this gift Rita has given her, a revival of youth just before death.
Photographs both bring Rita to this town and root its inhabitants in the past. Madalena has an entire room full of old pictures, many not even hers, because most of the people who owned them are already dead. I am reminded of the Mexican holiday, El Día de los Muertos, or The Day of the Dead, during which the living put up pictures of their dead loved ones as they celebrate their lives. It is the responsibility of these people to remember the deceased, because otherwise they are lost forever, even in the afterlife. For Madalena and the other elderly villagers, remembering preserves those lost to life. But with no children to survive them, who will remember them when they have gone? This thought scares me because I do not want to become lost to memory as they soon will. I am scared of death, of my own body aging and failing and ceasing to exist, even in the memories of others. After all, if nobody is left to remember me, then did I ever really exist at all?
Very rarely does a film manage to both mystify me and terrify me at the same time. Fondly, I remember a scene in which Rita stands alone in a barn, smiling as specks of dust float in front of her face, glinting in the sun’s light. My heart breaking, I remember another in which Madalena asks Rita to stay with her longer. And curiously, I ponder the last scene in which Antonio and the villagers approach Rita, who is ready to leave, and protest that she cannot because “there’s no one else to make the bread.”
© Roza M. Melkumyan (11/3/20) FF2 Media
Featured Photo: Madalena poses for a final photograph.
Photo Credits: Film Movement
Madalena taught Rita how to make bread. The two also talk about the photographs that Rita takes and the kinds of music they like.