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Michel Franco’s new film focuses on an alcoholic fighting the long-term aftermath of child molestation—this is perhaps his lightest work yet. Known for violent, unforgiving stories (After Lucia, Chronic), the Mexican filmmaker is often regarded as a sort of cinematic sadist, who revels in hurting his characters as much as possible. But this time around, however, his brand of screen cruelty has a more upbeat plot line which can almost qualify as feel-good in terms of its theme.

Sylvia (Jessica Chastain), a recovering addict working with adults with learning difficulties – she hasn’t spent enough time to become this person we get to know her step by step and eventually are allowed to see someone else entirely…a former drug addict turned social worker who now runs support groups for adults with special needs. She wears an affected -expression: her life is meticulously planned: AA meetings must be attended daily at 8 am, no deviations in childcare routines, and home covered by Fort Knox alarms. Sylvia’s walls come down slowly after meeting Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) – who used to be one of them himself; only then do we see that abuse can go deep within; it roots deeply entangled in areas beneath the surface…

Franco unexpectedly makes a clever film about healing from trauma that’s anything but cheesy. In other words, ‘I deserve you being exactly the way you are’ – it accuses him but leaves him behind alone in the forest without even giving him his emergency contact lanyard…and here we come face-to-face with the fact that right now there’s nothing worse than the process of recovery that changes into quicksand merely at some imaginary threat or trigger. Yet Sylvia is not an ideal victim but someone whose past has made her into a complex figure that often doesn’t follow stereotypes.

Sarsgaard matches Chastain’s brilliance every step of the way. Rather than simply portraying Saul’s dementia as a suffering, it is a thing that can make him even more humane: when she tells him about the very painful fact of her life he immediately picks up his diary and asks if he can write this down as he doesn’t want to forget — one of the many scenes that will tug at your heartstrings. Instead of having his monologue about his condition, we get astute directorial touches instead: Saul first enters the frame out of focus and later speaks while in focus but with only the lower half of his body in the frame – clever choices that serve to emphasize his cognitive cloudiness or how the mind is separated from the body. Is he longing for love? Or does he dwell in a dense foggy prison filled with circulating memories? I mean, they are basically similar things sometimes.

Other films touching on similar issues often fall into being cheap tear-jerker moments. But Memory is so gripping because it does little to expose itself apart from some unnecessary dialogue parts.

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