Memory” marks acclaimed Mexican director Michel Franco’s first English language feature. Franco has mostly operated in a ceaselessly bitter and cynical space, crafting narratives that are punishing, piercing and offer no relief. However, with “Memory,” he ventures into an unexpected, uncharacteristic direction that has an undeniable great wellspring of pain and grief but is punctuated with streaks of hope and defiantly snatched happiness. It feels like the director dangles a measure of hope in humanity amidst a tale of all-encompassing trauma.

Memory” premiered in the main competition at the 2023 Venice Film Festival, where it snagged a Volpi Cup Best Actor prize for Peter Saasgard’s wrenching performance as a man battling dementia who forges a surprising connection with a stranger, Sylvia (Jessica Chastain).

Memory (2023) Movie Summary & Plot Synopsis

We meet Sylvia in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. Multiple people are showering her with praise for her tenacity and commitment to staying sober. Sylvia works at an adult daycare center and is a single mother to Anna (Brooke Timber). She is distrustful of men and rarely goes out or has a functional social life with friends, except for visits to her sister, Olivia (Merritt Wever).

Sylvia keeps to herself and forbids her daughter from going out to parties with friends. The source of her anxiety and apprehension is slowly revealed to us, her reservations situated in facets of her past that haven’t received due acknowledgment and closure. She attends a school reunion where she barely engages with anyone. A stranger from the party follows Sylvia as she leaves, right up to the street outside her apartment.

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The morning after, she discovers the man is still around, sleeping on the street. She brings him a blanket, but he isn’t able to respond to any of her queries about why he has been following her. He points to an emergency contact card dangling from his neck, which she promptly calls. Finally, someone comes and gets him. However, the man, Saul, has made a solid impression on her. After some mulling, she decides to check on him at his place, where he lives with his brother, Isaac (Josh Charles), and his niece, Sara (Elsie Fisher), who is visiting. We learn that he has dementia. He remembers older stuff, things from his childhood, and about his family but tends to forget more recent episodes. However, oddly enough, he seems to remember Sylvia.

 She takes him for a walk. At a park, after they have had a pleasant talk, she suddenly confronts him. She tells him she remembers him. They’d been to school together. He denies having any memory of her. It is then she angrily springs an accusation on him for sexually abusing her in school. As he is taken aback and quietly claims innocence and that he has no knowledge of his actions, she turns more furious, charging him for conveniently having a selective memory. Enraged, she snatches away his emergency contact card and stormily walks away, deserting him at the park and leaving him utterly helpless and lost.

At the station, however, she decides she must go back. Initially, she can’t locate him and is terrified she’s lost him. Later, she discovers him and takes him back to his home. A few days later, Saul’s niece turns up at Sylvia’s, asking if she could take up a job as his daytime caretaker. Sara tells her Saul talks fondly about her, and the two seem to get along. Sylvia resists the offer but tells her she’d think about it.

Why Does Sylvia Take Up The Offer?

Memory (2023) Movie Ending Explained & Themes Analyzed
A still from “Memory” (2023)

Olivia informs Sylvia that it couldn’t have been Saul who abused her. She checked the yearbooks and other stuff and found out Saul came with his family from Reading to New York in the year she changed schools. Remorseful, Sylvia goes to Saul’s to apologize and also takes up the caretaker job. The two begin bonding, both looking forward to the other’s presence and company every day. Meanwhile, Sylvia’s mother, Samantha (Jessica Harper), arrives in town. Sylvia and her mother are on frosty terms, the former never having forgiven the latter for refusing to believe the abuse she suffered.

Samantha gets along with Sylvia’s daughter at Olivia’s place. One night, when Sylvia is staying over at Saul’s, the two share a moment of vulnerability. However, her fear of growing intimacy with him makes her decide to stop coming to Saul’s anymore. But Saul is too besotted with her already. He gives her courage, and the two tentatively walk into an intimate relationship. While picking up her daughter from Olivia’s, she is startled to come across her mother. An explosive scene follows where she lashes out at her mother for sheltering her father, who abused her as a kid, and for never believing in her. Her mother chose to stay in denial, which only distanced Sylvia from her for the rest of her life.

Memory (2023) Movie Ending Explained

Do Sylvia and Saul Reunite?

The abuse left Sylvia forever in a state of acute isolation. Saul has helped her break through it. One morning, after Sylvia has left for work and he is staying over, Saul wanders off outside. Alerted at work, Sylvia rushes to the hospital, where she’s told Saul was found lying unconscious on the street outside her home. A furious Isaac cuts off all contact between Sylvia and Saul. She tries to call him multiple times, but he never responds or calls back. It is Anna who, seeing how unhappy she is without Saul, goes to his place, insisting he come back. An overwhelmed Saul confesses how Isaac took away his phone, which is why he couldn’t reach out. He accepts Anna’s plea and reunites with Sylvia.

Memory (2023) Movie Themes Analyzed:

Negotiating Trauma and Pained Remembrance

The film is a bracing, moving exploration of a woman bundled with traumas that have been forced into denial and brushed under the carpet. What, then, does it do to her subsequent relationships and her attitude to them? Sylvia has never fully recovered from the support she didn’t get at her own home once she asserted the abuse was happening. That she happened to be a social animal became her mother’s weapon in strengthening her insistence on not imparting any seriousness and gravitas to Sylvia’s account.

Most of her trauma will remain in a knot deep within her, but Saul helps her open up and breathe and seek out what life still has to offer in its snippets of joy and togetherness. It takes a man with a failing grasp on his own memory to assist and enable a woman ripped apart by the burden of sour memories to let go of them and inch toward a healthier approach instead of allowing old wounds to fester thick and ugly and eat her up from within.

Read More: The 25 Best Films of 2023

Trailer:

Memory (2023) Movie Links: IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes, Wikipedia, Letterboxd
The Cast of Memory (2023) Movie: Jessica Chastain, Peter Sarsgaard, Merritt Wever, Brooke Timber, Elsie Fisher, Josh Charles, Jessica Harper
Memory (2023) Movie Genre: Drama, Runtime: 1h 40m
Where to watch Memory

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