The Eternal Memory is Maite Alberdi’s Tender and Devastating Documentary About Marriage and Caregiving

“Reconstructing memory is an act of knowing yourself. Without memory you have no identity.”

Augusto Góngora. January 2, 1952 – May 19, 2023.

Under the dictatorship of Pinochet no one was allowed to remember. The military junta which started in 1973 was an extended march of erasing humans. No one was allowed to mourn their dead. People disappeared. They would turn up in Argentina with their throats slit. They were to be seen as a warning. They existed to traumatise an already traumatised nation. The police and the army would snatch people from the street. People starved. Torture was commonplace. The message was submission, collaboration, compliance or suffer unthinkable consequences for yourself and your family.

Without bones or bodies or lost in unidentified graves, people simply ceased to exist – forever vanished. Journalist and author Augusto Góngora worked as an active part of the underground resistance — filming and reporting where he wasn’t supposed to. He participated in the NO. campaign. When Chile moved into democracy once again in the 1990s, he was one of the most prominent cultural and artistic voices to uplift the newly resurrected country. He was their memory keeper. He chronicled death and life and the cycle of renewal. Then he began to forget.

After over twenty years of partnership with actor and cultural minister Paulina Urrutia (Pauli), they married. At the time when Maite Alberdi and Pauli began filming the couple’s life together Augusto was eight years into his 2014 diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease. Every day Pauli works to reconstruct Augusto’s memory. Some days he is lucid and joyful – wishing to savour life and all that it offers. On other days he is morose and terrified hoping for death.

Two souls become lost and found through gentle but exhausting routine. Caring for someone with any kind of degenerative disease means that your own identity is inextricably tied to theirs. Depending on the time of day or other seemingly inexplicable factors, Augusto can remember who Pauli is. Alternately she is a stranger who reintroduces herself to him. She reminds him he has children and asks him who is in photographs (usually the photographs are of them).

Through a mixture of home recordings, video footage of their life together, archival footage of Augusto and Pauli, and Maite Alberdi’s own filming of the couple, The Eternal Memory presents a life well and purposefully lived, creating an empathetic and bittersweet tribute. The Eternal Memory is not only the portrait of one couple’s struggle through Alzheimer’s disease and their limitless love for each other.

Through play and sense memory activities Pauli works to reconstruct Augusto’s identity which is rapidly slipping away. Augusto cries over his lost books — the books that he worked for, the books that were his friends, the books he wrote. Pauli reads his inscription to her on a book he wrote about the strength and stubbornness of remembering. Through art and the championing of free expression Pauli and Augusto held the sacred flame of personal, professional, and national dignity.

The Eternal Memory is Chile itself. Raúl Ruiz and Javier Bardem appear in the background as do multiple authors, activists, actors, artists, and directors. Thousands of Chileans are represented – those who victimised, those who were victims, and those who resisted. Neruda is the poet of the nation who died under unclear circumstances after Pinochet’s coup. His quote: “A child who does not play is not a child, but the man who doesn’t play has lost forever the child who lived in him and who he will miss terribly. But from each crime are born bullets that will one day seek out in you where the heart lies,” is part of the motif of Chile itself and Maite Alberdi’s documentary.

Being trapped in one’s own disintegrating mind is a prison. A cage like the birds in the garden of their home. Making the choice to stay with someone for as long as they shall live, through better or worse, in sickness and in health was a vow Pauli did not undertake capriciously. She becomes a mother figure to her husband assuming feeding and bathing him. Pauli and Augusto are both aware of the attrition of Augusto’s identity as he declines. It is a mutual burden when Augusto is lucid enough to understand he is disappearing, but when he is not, it is Pauli’s fortitudinous anguish the audience witnesses.

Augusto watches his own journalistic recordings and is devastated. It isn’t a matter of Pauli re-traumatising Augusto, but an act of love to show him who he is and what he means to a nation. Pauli continues to reiterate he exists. He is loved. Augusto’s own mantra for memory is that he is not alone… people love him… he has friends… he is home. When the man he sees in the mirror is not himself it is Pauli who calms his storms. It is Pauli who asks him constant questions about his life and his past – makes him laugh. Pauli sits with him as he cries over friends who were murdered. In the exchange of love Augusto comforts Pauli as she cries in despair over him not recognising her for almost a day. He then enfolds her in warmth and humour. Augusto promises with the sincerest love that it will never happen again. Yet, it will happen again. He is a man mistaking himself for a stranger in his own mind. Augusto adores Pauli. Even when he isn’t sure who she is he calls her beautiful.

Augusto Góngora died not long after the documentary was completed. The Eternal Memory ensures he continues to exist in the infinite. There can be no collective amnesia for Chile. Augusto Góngora is more than the sum of his own and Pauli’s memories — he is a seed that flourished and bore fruit in barren grounds. He lives in perpetuity. What remains after all else is gone is what you contributed to the world. Pinochet’s legacy is corruption and evil. Augusto Góngora’s legacy is love and dignity. Paulina Urrutia’s legacy is compassion and strength.

Director: Maite Alberdi

Featuring: Augusto Góngora, Paulina Urrutia, Gustavo Cerati

Writer: Maite Alberdi

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Nadine Whitney

Nadine Whitney holds qualifications in cinema, literature, cultural studies, education and design. When not writing about film, art or books, she can be found napping and missing her cat.

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