In Memory House, Brazilian filmmaker João Paulo Miranda Maria shows us the way a history of colonialism (even when it’s not officially colonial) continues to be a spiritual burden that many cannot escape.
Cristovam is a indigenous black man from Northern Brazil who has moved to an Austrian enclave in the South because the dairy company he worked at for 20 years long ago closed the dairy he worked at in the north and moved the operations to the south. In the opening scene, Cristovam is being interviewed by the company head, but through an interpreter. The boss hasn’t even bothered to learn Portuguese. When Cristovam is told his wages will be cut, the boss tells the interpreter “As on old and black man, where would he get a better option?”
The boss operates under the assumption that the Europeans came to bring innovation. He assumes that is for the better. The company is fully behind an independence movement to secede from Brazil. They clearly feel superior to the Brazilian people.
As one of the very few native Brazilians (and the darkest skinned one), Cristovam is something of an outlier. He doesn’t speak German like most of the people in his community. He experiences blatant racism. He is preyed upon by local youths.
He discovers an abandoned house that has many old things that rekindle his memories and feelings of past times. As he finds more and more items, he is in touch with ancient folklore and begins to find a sense of being that is not defined by the European community. There is a hint of magical realism as Cristovam takes on these aspects of the past.
Part of the discoveries that Cristovam makes happen after some locals have painted a racist comment on the wall in the house. He begins chipping the plaster away and there finds an earlier wall with a picture on it that is one of his triggers. We see there is a layer under that one as well. It is as though the layers of historical oppression must be removed bit by bit in order for Cristovam to find his genuine self.
The film provides commentary on the way oppressed minorities have had their dignity chipped away through years of cultural imperialism. Cristovam is left with little of the meanings and values of the world of his birth. He is a stranger in a strange land even in his native country. And in the end, even his life may be just another thing stolen by the company and the community around it.
Memory House is in select theaters and available of virtual cinema.
Photos courtesy of Film Movement.