After truly enjoying his previous few films (The Queen of Spain, The Artist and the Model, and the Oscar-nominated animated feature Chico & Rita), director Fernando Trueba’s latest, Memories of My Father, is a bit of a letdown, if only because it assumes viewers know more about Colombian political history than most of us do, and it wouldn’t have taken much to clue us into the fluctuating situation in the violent 1970s, up until the late 1980s, when the writer’s professor father, human rights activist Héctor Abad Gómez (Javier Cámara) was assassinated in their hometown of Medellin.
Based on the memoir by noted Colombian writer Hector Abad Facilionce (and adapted by David Trueba), the film is part coming-of-age drama and part call to action, but it’s all really about a young Hector (played as a preteen by Nicolás Reyes Cano, and as an adult by Juan Pablo Urrego) who worships his father and is clearly his father’s favorite (it’s likely no coincidence that Hector is the only boy in a house filled with older sisters). This is not to say the household isn’t a loving one, but it’s not without issues. The good professor not only works too hard for not much money, but his social and political beliefs often clash with those in charge, and his personal safety is often at risk. But with all things filtered through young Hector’s perspective, we’re never entirely sure how reliable this idealized image of his father actually is.
The family dynamic changes forever when cancer claims the life of one of the daughters, and Gomez throws himself into the plight of the ones who are the most impacted by political unrest and tyranny: the underclasses, who have almost no say in their government and are the most intimidated by threats or corruptible by money from the rich. His deep sorrow and anger at losing his daughter drives him to spend less time with his family, and before long his beloved Hector is off to Italy to study and even fall in love. Hector is eventually called back when his father is forced to retire from the university where he teaches, but instead of simply taking time off to be with his wife, he throws himself into politics even deeper and runs for office, despite having his name placed on a death-list.
As a family melodrama, Memories of My Father works surprisingly well, with complex and shifting relationships providing the film with some much needed nuance. But when the film enters the political realm, it’s far easier to tune out, simply because the legacy of the time and place (especially as a drug-industry guerrilla movement begins to take over) is vague and unclear. That doesn’t make it a bad movie by any stretch, but it does make it one of the filmmaker’s least interesting recent endeavors.
The film is now playing in a limited theatrical run and will be available on digital platforms December 13.
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