One of the pleasures of blogging comes with the responses you sometimes get from a person you have never met, who may live on the other side of the world, yet who has read and appreciated something you have written. One instance was last week, when Victor wrote from Brazil in appreciation of a post I had written some time ago about the Korean film Poetry.
As a token of his appreciation Victor recommended a Brazilian film of which I’d never heard, viewable on YouTube. Stories Only Exist When Remembered, a first feature directed by Julia Murat in 2011, proved to be an exquisite film, a meditation on memory, time and ageing in which few words are spoken but much is implied.
I have watched Stories Only Exist When Remembered twice now – so heartfelt thanks to Victor for pointing me towards one of those rare films that has instantly had a profound effect on me – like Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God, Antonioni’s The Passenger, Wenders’ Kings of the Road, Angelopolous’s The Travelling Players and Tarkovsky’s Mirror. August company, indeed!
An elderly woman emerges from the darkness, her face illuminated by a flickering oil lamp. She walks nearer, puts down the lamp on a table, and begins to make bread. As she works slowly but methodically, the camera lingers on the old cracked bowl, glazed with a simple cherry design, in which she mixes the dough.
Madalena (played beautifully by veteran actor Sonia Guedes), is a widow who rises before dawn each day to bake bread. As soon as it is light she walks along an abandoned railway track to the antique village store, carrying her bread rolls in a basket. She arrives just as Antonio (Luiz Serra) pulls open its crumbing doors to let in the light of another day which will be just like the one before, and the ones which will follow.
Murat’s film lovingly observes the rituals and rhythms of daily life in a tiny village of barely a dozen souls in a forgotten corner of Brazil. It’s a place literally at the end of the line: the disused railway, rusting rail-cars and remains of some industry a visual metaphor for old age, the people full of hidden memories and set in their ways. Slowly, the film develops into encounter between youth and age, summoning impressions of time and memory, light and darkness, and whatever meanings may be revealed by photography.
Sacred days: the rituals and rhythms of daily life
In a film that’s as far removed from the fast-cutting bombast of mainstream American cinema as it’s possible to be, Murat lets the camera rest on a slowly-unfolding tableau, observing the easeful rhythms of daily life and routines, the fond, repeated verbal exchanges in a community of individuals advanced in years. And she lets us see those routines over and over again, as the days pass.
The camera stays largely focussed on Madalena in her daily routines, Lucio Bonelli’s chiaroscuro cinematography tenderly closing in on her face and hands illuminated in the glow of an oil lamp as she moves around her kitchen before dawn to make the bread which she brings to the general store run by Antonio.
As he opens up and grinds the beans for the first coffee of the day the couple exchange affectionate banter, always about the same things: the quality of Antonio’s coffee, and the correct way to place the bread in the near-empty shelves (we never learn how Antonio would like the bread to be placed, only that he chides Madelena for being ‘a stubborn old woman’ for doing it wrong).
They move to the rough wooden bench outside the store – Antonio always gently taking Madelena’s hand as she eases her body down onto the seat – to sit and have coffee together. Antonio always remarks that ‘there’s some rain on the way’.
Madelena and the other elderly inhabitants go through their unchangeable routines, patiently accepting and relishing what each new day brings. In the morning they climb the hill to the isolated church where the priest celebrates mass and urges the villagers to ‘serve one another, each according to the blessing you received.’
Later, the men play at tossing metal washers along the old station platform, before the villagers gather for the shared evening meal, presided over by the priest, which always begins with the observance of grace.
Before she returns to her home, Madelena tends flowers she has arranged at the gate of the cemetery where her husband is buried. Mysteriously, the cemetery gates are always locked, and a sign says ‘Entry Prohibited’. In these daytime scenes, Lucio Bonelli’s camera-work lingers lovingly on the colours and textures of time and decay, the rich palette of earthy browns, oranges and yellows that mark the ageing surfaces of the walls and buildings around the settlement.
At home each night, Madelena writes a new letter to her lost love, each one sealed in an envelope addressed to her husband Guilhelme Orsini, and then added to a growing collection:
My love, I’d like to keep our memory forever alive, so our love, in the future, doesn’t suffer from the passing of time. We have to go beyond death, this cruel enemy, that didn’t choose day or time. I kiss you tenderly, yours, Madalena.
Youth and age: Rita
One day, Rita arrives in the village, looking for a place to stay. She’s a young traveller, making her way through the valley, following the unused railway tracks. She is a photographer, curious about the village, and intent on capturing the village’s time-worn character, fading surfaces and textures, and the weathered faces of its inhabitants.
Rita takes a room in Madelena’s house. Initially reserved and a little suspicious of her youth, the villagers gradually warm to Rita, sharing their stories and allowing themselves to be photographed. She joins them in church and at their evening meal.
She’s a bit of a contradiction: full youthful energy, dancing wildly in the dark to rock music on her earphones, but also an old soul who declares she was ‘born in the wrong time’. Her cameras epitomise this contradiction: a mix of the latest digital kind – ‘all buttons and flashing lights’, as Madelena remarks – and two simple pinhole cameras, made out of an old can and a box.
Rita doesn’t really impose her youth on the villagers, though they do have to adjust to the idea of a woman drinking cachaça, the sugar-cane spirit. On the contrary, Rita attempts to understand and become part of the daily routines of the villagers.
Crucially, Rita brings the past into the present when she questions Madalena and the others about their younger days, serenades them with old-time music on her mp3 player, and particularly through the images which she captures with her pinhole camera contraptions. These images, which seem to be fading like memories before our eyes, are employed by Julia Murat to punctuate the film from time to time.
For Madalena, Rita seems to offers a different, more easeful, way back to the past. Slowly, she moves beyond the grief at the loss of her husband – represented by the nightly letters and the tending of flowers at the cemetery – to embracing the memories evoked by Rita’s images, and her own collection of long-hidden photos of people who have long since died or left the village.
Something similar happens one morning at the store. ‘What do you think of young people?’ Madalena asks Antonio. After some time he replies, recalling his two sons who both died violent deaths. Madelena’s son also died when a toddler, falling off a high cupboard while being photographed by a neighbour in whose care he had been left.
Memory, understanding life backwards and forgetting how to die
‘Life can only be understood backwards.’
The effect of Rita’s arrival on the villagers is to release memories – like butterflies that have been in winter hibernation. The process evokes pain, but also pleasure as youthful feelings are released. Marcel Proust once wrote that ‘In reminiscence my experiences do not fade, they grow more vivid’. For Proust, intense memories give emotional meaning to an individual’s life.
But in this village, it transpires, everyone is engaged in an act of resistance against memory symbolised by the locking of the cemetery gates. When Rita asks why, since 1976, no names have been added to the list of names of those who have died, Antonio replies: ‘Here we forget to die’.
This idea came to director Julia Murat while filming a documentary in a small town in the southwest of Brazil. (Murat’s career so far has been making documentaries). She discovered that the local cemetery had closed, so when the inhabitants died their bodies had to be sent on a seven-hour boat ride to another cemetery for burial.
Murat turned the stranger-than-fiction story of the cemetery into the key element of this haunting feature film, combining a documentarist’s eye and sense of pacing in her portrayal of the decaying village with a haunting tale that has shades of magic realism about it.
Truly, though our element is time,
We are not suited to the long perspectives
Open at each instant of our lives.
They link us to our losses: worse,
They show us what we have as it once was,
Blindingly undiminished, just as though
By acting differently, we could have kept it so.
– Philip Larkin, ‘Reference Back’
Dark and light: photography and memory
There is something elegiac about the feelings evoked when looking at old photos, a sadness that many of the people in them are now dead, or that the moments frozen there can’t be retrieved. Stories Only Exist When Remembered is a film about how memory and photography intersect.
At first, it seems that in the images she captures with her cameras, Rita is only interested in aestheticizing the place out of time into which she has stumbled.Madelena’s first response on being shown her prints is that there are ‘no people, only old stuff’ in them. ‘Why did you come to take pictures of an empty town?’ Madelena asks. Rita replies: ‘Maybe I was born in the wrong time.’
But soon the villagers begin to populate Rita’s images, though she often chooses to take them with one of her pinhole cameras, a technique which lends them an instant patina of nostalgia as they seem to fade before our eyes.
One evening, Madelena recalls the time when a commercial photographer came to the village, and how people rushed to have their photo taken, dressed in their best clothes, often to send to relatives who had left the village or emigrated – in order to show how well they were doing. Rita asks Madelena her reason for having her photo taken. ‘I just liked to see my soul together with Guillaume’s,’ she replies.
This made me think of Roland Barthes, who in Camera Lucida, stated that every photograph possesses (coining a term of his own) a punctum. A photograph’s punctum is the object or detail that jumps out at the viewer – ‘that accident which pricks, bruises me … is poignant to me’. The punctum creates a disturbance ‘which rises from the scene’ and unintentionally fills the whole image.
Susan Sontag put it a different way:
All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.
Rita’s photographs certainly testify to time’s relentless melt. But it struck me how Julia Murat’s film contains very little camera movement, possibly none at all, and I wondered whether this was intentional, in order to replicate the idea of a photograph. The beautiful cinematography has burnt this film into my own memory. The fall of light often so exquisite, whether sunlight cast on walls, surfaces, textures, peeling paint, old machinery, or the flickering light of an oil lamp illuminating faces with a golden glow amidst the encircling darkness.
Often this is a film of silences, too. Music is used sparingly, though to great effect. One of the finest moments occurs as Rita and an elderly black man with whom she shares a drink each night are sitting in the darkness, an oil lamp between them. ‘I never heard so much silence,’ Rita says. The old man extinguishes the lamp, and the screen goes to black, and Murat lets it stay that way. At first we hear silence, then the soundtrack is gradually flooded with the noises of the night – cicadas, the cries of birds and other animals.
Give us this day our daily bread
If photographic images are one thread running through the film, bread is another. The first thing we see is Madelena making bread in the oil lamp’s glow. Every day, she and Antonio tussle over how the bread rolls should properly be displayed in his shop. The priest advises his flock that their prayer should be: ‘Don’t give me wealth or poverty; give me the bread I need.’
Crucially, in one of the film’s finest scenes, Madalena teaches Rita to knead dough by the light of the oil lamp. ‘You need to feel the timing of the dough with your hands’, she says as she reaches across to grasp Rita’s hands to guide her.
‘If bread doesn’t breathe, it gets stiff,’ Madelena says: a metaphor for souls, perhaps.
In the film’s final scene, shouldering her backpack and ready to move on, Rita encounters the whole village. ‘There is no-one else to make the bread’, they tell her.
Stories Only Exist When Remembered is a marvellous film; its story is one that I will remember for a very long time. In her first feature, Julia Murata has created a beautiful and poetic film, a reflection on the passage of time, concerning the last people left in a village left abandoned by the tide of history. Through their deepening relationship, Rita and Madelena offer each other lessons about life and the importance of not letting it slip away.
The complete film can be viewed on YouTube: