One cannot talk about Memoria (if one is an American, anyway) without talking about the simply batshit release strategy that its director, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and its U.S. Distributor, Neon, have concocted for it. In short: one screen at a time in North America, one week at a time, and it will theoretically just float from arthouse to arthouse in perpetuity, never arriving on televisions, only to be seen on great big screens. Also, the city where the next week's screening is to take place apparently isn't getting announced until literally the last conceivable minute. I don't like for it. I even think I hate it a little; what is meant to make the film seem special and rare and powerful instead comes across as the most demented, myopic form of gatekeeping. If I weren't a semi-professional film critic, I wouldn't have seen it at all (even in the form of a scruffy DVD screener) until God knows when, and now I'm going to come to all of you my readers and tell you that it's great, except you won't be able to see it until God knows when either. I would frankly be tempted to knock some points off just out of righteous indignation, except it's also the best film that I've seen since at least 2018, and it would be awfully shabby of me to give it a reduced rating just out of pique.

So that's the punchline, anyway: yep, Memoria is the best thing I've seen in three years, even under extremely insufficient circumstances (and two of those three years have been somewhat infamously bad for movies, and civilisation as a whole, but I'd still stack it up against everything from the annus mirabilis of 2019). It's Apichatpong's first film made outside of Thailand, and the game of "great art director makes his/her first film in a foreign language" is always one I'm interested to watch; in this case, doubly so, since Memoria splits its time awfully close to halfway between Spanish and English. But it all the ways that count, it feels like the director's work through and through: build around a sharp narrative bifurcation, prone to opening doors to mysteries that it's never actually worried about solving and only somewhat interested in exploring, buttoned up with an ending that simply walks away from the film altogether for a moment of contemplation. Slightly weird, bonkers contemplation in this case, though that's the last I'll have to say about the ending.

The film is primarily about, in no particular order, memory, history, death, and sound, and part of its genius lies in making it feel like the third of those things is inseparably connected with the first three. The focal point is Jessica Holland (Tilda Swinton), a Scottish woman in Colombia, whose sister Karen (Agnes Brekke) is sick in a hospital. Jessica has recently come to Bogotá from her present home in Medellín to visit, and here she has begun to hear a deep percussive noise. She doesn't know what it is, but it might have something to do with the the tunnel excavation project that Karen and her husband Juan (Daniel Giménez Cacho) have been consulting on (they're both anthropologists, and ancient human remains speaking to a history of violence have been uncovered by the digging). This leads to the first unsatisfactory explanation for Jessica's thump: maybe it's a subterranean echo of the digging process.

Anyway plot synopsis doesn't get us very far into Memoria at all. Partially this is because the film's pleasures lie elsewhere right from the start. Partially this is because at a certain point late in the first half, the possibility presents itself that at least some of the things in that summary might be untrue; Karen has apparently lost her memory of a long, intense conversation she had with Jessica, or perhaps Jessica fabricated the memory of having that conversation herself; at any rate, in the film's second half, it appears for all intents and purposes that Jessica now exists in a different reality than she used to. Which is more of a curiosity for her than a problem. And it's more of a curiosity than a problem for Memoria as well. The film is relentlessly curious, in fact, using its practically static pace (there are multiple shots running upwards of six, eight, ten minutes across the 136-minute feature) to soak in moments, sometimes of human activity, sometimes not. One of the film's most enthralling sequences finds Jessica sitting next to a sound engineer named Hernán (Juan Pablo Urrego), trying futilely to explain the noise she heard (sort of like dropping a concrete sphere into water from a height, only more metallic?), as he tries to craft an approximation of the sound she and we heard way back at the start, never quite getting there. And over the course of around ten minutes of watching, the different textures and shapes of sound become the movie, as sound designer Akritchalerm Kalayanamitr takes over from Apichatpong as the true author of the piece.

Indeed, sound is always pretty close to the heart of Memoria, which opens in static, quiet stillness, watching nothing happen in the dark until that first bonk slashes its quick, heavy path across the soundtrack; the filmmakers bring it back quite a few times, and every time it feels as shocking and disquieting as if it were brand new, culminating in a scene of unbearable tension that has absolutely no right to work as well as it does, given that it's just a wide shot of several people having a conversation at a dinner table; two things happen over the course of this shot, both of them involving what we hear more than what we see, and they both make it feel like everything the film has given us to hold onto has just been wrenched away. I will not spoil it, other than to say that it makes a good argument that seeing Memoria with high-quality theater sound is even more important than seeing it on a big screen with high-quality projection, as if that argument hadn't already been made. Sound dominates this movie: things we don't see but can hear, loud and urgent, often feel like they are the main subject, and it's the image track that's just there to give some background presence. Even when we do see the object the making the noises, the image is subordinate to the soundtrack, or at least no more than its equal, as in a phenomenal early shot of car alarms going off one by one in a parking lot and then one by one silencing themselves, as the camera glides smoothly forward between rows of cars and their flashing taillights.

"Sound carries meaning" is actually one of the film's most explicitly presented themes, and the meaning that it carries then becomes the mystery. As Jessica wanders from the city into the country (the most characteristic shift for one of Apichatpong's films to make), she also wanders into the history of Colombia, a place where bumbling Europeans like herself have no reason to go, especially when they, like she, are perhaps congenitally incapable of memory. The film's miraculous second half - I mean, the first half is great, dreamy and strange but always feeling like you can grasp it, with its magnificent wide-shot tableaux that feel like moving murals of urban life, but it's basically just a dress rehearsal for the second half (which is also pretty characteristic of Apichatpong's films) - is built entirely on the tension between memory and not-memory, as Jessica meets another man named Hernán (Elkin Díaz), whose great tragedy is that he is afflicted with remembering everything; between the two of them and the two extraordinary minimalist performances bringing them to life, these characters begin to explore what it is to try to learn about the past, to trouble the long-dead of history. And I'm being vague on purpose, because I do hope that you'll have a chance to see Memoria sometime in a theater - I hope to have the same chance! - and there are moments in that second half that made me feel like I was starting to hover outside my body from sheer audiovisual joy, even from things as simple as a wide two-shot dominated by water sounds, or even just a medium shot of Díaz blinking at an unexpected moment.

But I'm also being vague because Memoria is not a very yielding film; it offers something almost like a parody of the answer to its mysteries at the start of a marvelous closing montage that feels like the film is both waking us back up and putting us back to sleep. But it's very hard to explain it. It is clearly about memory, clearly about the violence of history, about the debt we owe to people who have died in the past, about what it means to observe a place where you don't belong, in both material and metaphysical senses of "belonging". It is, simply put, one of the most hypnotic and transcendent films of the 21st Century.