Each morning, Madalena (Sonia Guedes) wakes before dawn to make bread in the dark. A single kerosene lamp lights her kitchen. She then trudges outside, slowly following a set of unused train tracks to Jotuomba, a fictional Brazilian village that seems to exist outside of time.
It's there, in town, that she bickers every morning with Antonio (Luiz Serra), the owner of the coffee shop that sells her wares. He wants the bread stacked one way; she insists on doing it another way. They then share coffee that he makes, which she claims is terrible.
At one point, Antonio says, "I had a girlfriend who died when she was 18. Thank God I never saw her grow old. Because when I remember her, I'm 18 as well."
Age is the thing that most occupies the minds of Jotuomba's residents, followed closely by duty. Actually, the residents are more like inhabitants. There's a sense that these people can exist only in this town, and the functions they perform daily, by rote, are some kind of sad, existential choice, the result of which is a surprise-free and morose sort of existence.
That's not to say that the movie is sad, though it does have a pall over it. That the pall is beautiful makes this strange film all the more satisfying, even as its story unfolds in a most unexpected way.
See, Madalena is content—or maybe resigned—to bake the bread each morning; then walk along the train tracks; then bicker with Antonio; then have lunch with the town's other ancient inhabitants; then go to mass; then visit the cemetery where her husband is buried; then go home and write a letter to him that she won't send; and then, repeat the same actions the following day. And the day after that.
That is, until a young photographer named Rita (Lisa E Fávero) arrives in town and asks Madalena if she may stay for a few days while she documents the area. It's here that Found Memories becomes even more intriguing. How will this town of curmudgeonly old people respond to the young whippersnapper in their midst?
To put it plainly, Rita fits right in, and she and Madalena bond in a way that's unexpected. As Rita says at one point, she was born in the wrong time.
The way Madalena and Rita's relationship unfolds is quiet, subtle and deliberate, adjectives that also can describe director Julia Murat's film. The camera rarely moves, but rather lets the characters find their spaces within its frame. The lighting is spare and lovely. Interiors are lit mostly by oil lamp, as one would expect in a town frozen in the past. Exteriors are lit with available light. It's sunny or overcast or raining, but it's not artificial.
It's almost as if Murat and cinematographer Lucio Bonelli made a decision to let things play out as they will, as if Madalena and Rita's mutual discovery that they could very well be the same person—figuratively or literally—dictates the actions and set-ups that take place within each scene, within each frame.
Patient viewers will enjoy the movie's spare narrative, existential bent and appreciate the long gaps of silence, during which ambient noise—footsteps; eggs being mixed in a bowl; wind in the trees—is often the only sound. The bulk of the action in Found Memories concerns the unchanging patterns of an ordinary existence and the dependence friends and neighbors have on each other.
A movie this deliberate has its point, and it does reach it. The ending is something of a surprise, and it makes one wonder just what we've been watching for the preceding 90 minutes. But the ending also makes sense, and one gets the feeling that Rita, Madalena and certainly the townsfolk are resigned to it. Perhaps they're even pleased with it. After all, the bread has to be baked, the café needs to be run and mass needs to be attended.
What else is there?
With Sonia Guedes, Luiz Serra and Lisa E Fávero / The Screen / NR / 98 min.