Gen. Augusto Pinochet and the military junta he heads have turned Chile into a police state. Homesick, self-exiled Ignaccio Vega (Sylvain Thirolle, marvelous) has slipped back in. A decade earlier, he had been entrusted with memorizing the names of the 15,000 fellow members of the underground resistance; to do this, and to do it in record time, Vega found ways to use Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century La vida es sueño as a mnemonic. This play, which Vega identifies with his childhood, when he learned it, concerns a prisoner who discovers he is his country’s prince; similarly, Chile rightfully belongs to Vega and other pro-democracy patriots. Meanwhile, the police want Vega’s list, memory of which Vega aims to undo. Betrayed by a lifelong friend, he is targeted with a fatal bullet. Life, it turns out, is a bloody dream.
Writer-director Râúl Ruiz’s dense Mémoire des apparences interweaves a political thriller in which Vega and the police face off, dreams and memories (including movies), and scenes from the play. The movie theater that Vega haunts is both fixed and in flux, a repository of memories where the films being shown—one resembles Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes (1938), but as Vega is reimagining it—reflect situations of intrigue in which Vega finds himself. The interrogation room of police headquarters is located right behind the screen, and the police routinely invade the theater to arrest hiding dissidents. A good many sequences in the film are tinged with blood-red, and a few, outdoors, are awash in lush light green—death vs. life; nightmarish violence vs. fresh, dreamy tranquility.
This is a wildly uneven film, but its “highs,” of which there are many, are astonishingly compelling and moving, and among the most beautiful work Ruiz did.
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