Ghost and pain from the past resurface to the present in Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige‘s moving multigenerational drama Memory Box. Loosely based on the former’s story of coming of age in Beirut in the 80s, and inspired by photographs taken by the latter, Memory Box elevates a generic memoir drama into an affecting portrait of reconciliation and an exploration of how one generation’s trauma can be passed on to the next generation, and while doing so, it offers an inventive visual and phenomenal performances from the cast. The director duo once again proves why they are two of the most exciting directors working today.

The Past, The Present, and the Pain

Rim Turki plays Maia, a mother with a tortured past but refuses to try processing it. When the film begins, however, Maia is not seen yet. Instead, we’re introduced first to her teenage daughter Alex (Paloma Vauthier) and her own mother (Clémence Sabbagh), who is equally damaged as Maia by something that happened in the past. While the two are waiting for Maia to come home after work to celebrate Christmas at their cozy house in Montreal, a carton box is delivered to their house. After Maia’s mother notices the address of the sender, she decides to hide the box in the ceiling, hoping that Maia won’t find it. Her reason? She wants to protect her daughter from a pain that might resurface.

source: Berlinale Film Festival

Even though her grandmother has told her to stay away from the box, curiosity gets the best of Alex. She still tries to look at what’s inside the box in the end. Old photographs, sound bites, and letters written by Maia to someone named Liza are all that she finds in there. Hoping to find out more about the parts of her mother’s life that she hasn’t known before, Alex spends days going through all those mementos.

Parts where Alex is creating images of how her mother’s life was, based on the stuff she’s found in the box, are where Memory Box is at its most inventive. Instead of utilizing generic flashback sequences, the film blends fantasy and reality, most times in a really stylish way. Old photos come to life, while old records, describing all the details of Maia’s life as a teenager in Beirut, hum in the background. There’s even one moment where we see the teenage Maia (Manal Issa) with the boy she loved back then, Raja (Hassan Akil), making out inside of a car while on the outside bombs are exploding in a visually stylish way.

But visual isn’t the only thing that Hadjithomas and Joreige marvel at, as the narrative also hits on all the right emotional notes. Through the flashback sequences, we come to learn about Maia and her mother’s tragic past, as the two are not only dealing with the dire situation of Beirut, which is at war in the 80s, but also with the death of Maia’s brother, which results in her father having a depression. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise then to see Maia and her mother refuse to engage with their past after knowing what they’ve gone through in Beirut.

source: Berlinale Film Festival

If this sounds depressing, that’s because it is. Memory Box does start off mostly as a bleak drama. But what’s fascinating is how amidst all the darkness, the movie always finds a little touch of joy, especially as it zooms in on Maia’s explosive romantic life with Raja. In fact, as the movie reaches towards its second half, the tone turns from being somber into something lighter and more hopeful. This is what eventually makes Memory Box such an affecting, emotionally accessible movie. We feel the joy as much as we feel the despair.

Solid From Every Aspect

Anchoring everything are the central performances of the cast. As Alex, Vauthier is never less than remarkable. She provides her character’s curiosity with excitement, but when she needs to show how her mom not opening up to her has also affected her, she gives plenty of heartbreak underneath her frustration too. Issa steals every scene she’s in as the young Maia, moving inside the frame always with a spark. But the real standout is Turki. We feel her pain and insecurity, while at the same time, experiencing catharsis as she slowly opens up as the movie progresses.

Josée Deshaies‘ crisp cinematography, along with the visual effect from Laurent Brett, makes Memory Box all the more remarkable. So much of what’s wonderful about the movie happens because the visual is so spellbinding. And this would not happen unless the editor, Tina Baz, hadn’t found a solid rhythm in cutting each scene of the movie. With Memory Box, Hadjithomas and Joreige have made a solid collaboration from every aspect.

Final Thought

While on the outside it seems like Memory Box tells a familiar story of a ghost from the past, the film is actually so much more complex than that. It’s introspective, affecting, and visually inventive depiction of how memory, good or bad, plays a huge part in shaping us in the present. Hadjithomas and Joreige have done it again.

Memory Box plays at 71st Berlin International Film Festival in the main competition category.

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