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Film Reviews: Origin & Memory

Arts Review2024-1-19By: Marc Glassman


Reclaiming the Past

Origin & Memory

By Marc Glassman



Ava DuVernay, director & script based on the book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

Starring: Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor (Isabel Wilkerson), Jon Bernthal (Brett Hamilton), Niecy Nash-Betts (Marion Wilkerson), Emily Yancy (Ruby Wilkerson), Finn Wittrock (August Landmesser), Victoria Pedretti (Irma Eckler), Isha Blaaker (Allison Davis), Vera Farmiga (Kate), Audra McDonald (Miss Hale), Connie Neilsen (Sabine)


Ava DuVernay has produced something unique in Origin. The multi-award-winning director, who has easily traversed the terrain from fiction to documentary in such works as Middle of Nowhere, a drama set mainly in prison, and When They See Us–a powerful doc about the Central Park jogger scandal–has taken on a form that is truly unusual, a dramatic film essay. 

It’s rare that you’ll see any film, even a doc, that embraces the essay format, since the genre is about ideas and rarely charts an emotional trajectory or traces the development of a central character. Undaunted, DuVernay has made a film that is all about a protagonist, who is guided by her emotions as well as her intellect to come up with a theory that goes beyond race to understand the origins of the inequality that has besmirched the world through the ages.

Origin is inspired by Isabel Wilkerson’s ground-breaking book Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, a best-selling investigation into the roots of racism. Through research, intuitive thinking and historical rigour, Wilkerson—the first Pulitzer Prize winning Black journalist—evolved a theory that racism goes beyond skin colour and is inherently about the caste system. She makes the case that social stratification is at the core of many political systems, with a ruling class imposing order by demonizing a vulnerable group, which can be accused of representing the worst in society. By attacking them, a hierarchy can be created with even the least powerful of the purported elite—generally the working class— feeling strength by having a lower order that they can oppress mercilessly with immunity. This allows the true rulers, the elite, to maintain control economically and politically while satisfying most of the population.

DuVernay’s coup in dramatizing Wilkerson’s historical theory was to make the brilliant journalist the central figure in a film drama. Aunjanue Ellis-Taylor creates a moving portrait of Isabel Wilkerson, a fine writer and thinker, who must cope with the loss of her husband and mother while writing Caste. In the process of evolving her theory, she encounters opposition from other intellectuals as well as many Black Americans who have always considered their situation to be unique and are somewhat offended by a theory, which suggests that other classes and cultures have suffered from similar forms of oppression. Through determination and self-confidence, Wilkerson eventually triumphs with the publication of her book, which becomes a critical and popular success.

The narrative is built around Wilkerson’s gradual discovery of her theory, finding proof through two other major tragedies: the destruction of the European Jews by the Nazis and the terrible mistreatment of the Dalits—the so-called “Untouchables”—by many Hindus in India. DuVernay and Ellis-Taylor have made a compelling drama of this intelligent journey, with the aid of a fine cast including Jon Bernthal as Wilkerson’s supportive White husband, Brett Hamilton, the funny Niecy Nash-Betts as Isabel’s closest living relative, Marion, and Emily Yancy as Isabel’s mother, Ruby.

Origin is a truly original film. Released during Black History Month and the period in which Martin Luther King Day is celebrated, it is a drama meant for this time and place. DuVernay has made a film of power and intellect, which should be embraced by a discerning viewership. 



Michel Franco, director & script

Starring: Jessica Chastain (Sylvia), Peter Sarsgaard (Saul), Merritt Wever (Olivia), Jessica Harper (Samantha), Elsie Fisher (Sara), Brooke Timber (Anna), Josh Charles (Isaac)


As the global population continues to age in larger numbers, cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s are rapidly growing. It’s clearly an issue that must be addressed by society until such time as medicine can hopefully provide solutions. So, it’s no surprise that dramas are taking on these concerns in recent years with some of the finest being by Canadians Sarah Polley with her adaptation of Alice Munro’s Away from Her and Atom Egoyan with the Holocaust thriller Remember. Both offered great opportunities for acting, which were seized on by Christopher Plummer in the Egoyan and, quite notably, Julie Christie in Polley’s acclaimed work. Internationally, Anthony Hopkins in The Father and Julianne Moore in Still Alice have won Academy Awards for their work portraying people dealing with mental issues when older.

With Memory, Mexican auteur Michel Franco (After Lucia, April’s Daughters) has added his name to the growing roster of writers and directors who are taking on this powerful subject. As if dementia isn’t enough for him, Franco has added more complications—alcohol addiction, sexual abuse and his most familiar theme, dysfunctional families—to the film. It suggests that Memory will be a forbidding drama to watch but that’s not really the case. Despite the weighty topics freighting the film, there’s a surprising amount of love and humour, which turn this into an attractive drama.

Set in contemporary Manhattan, which Franco depicts in a funky, unglamorous way, the writer-director unfolds a story based on emotional and physical proximity. Sylvia (Jessica Chastain) and Saul (Peter Sarsgaard) are vulnerable people who meet each other awkwardly at a school reunion. A recovering alcoholic and the single mother of a mature-beyond-her-age daughter Anna (Brooke Timber), Sylvia is quite wary of men, particularly anyone who might recall her troubled childhood, when she was a promiscuous rebel, who drank and used drugs indiscriminately. The generally sweet-tempered Saul is dealing with early on-set dementia and literally doesn’t recall Sylvia at all, certainly not in a malicious way. Once Sylvia’s sister Olivia proves to her that Saul only arrived at school after she had left, the two slowly forge a relationship. 

Sylvia leaves her support job as a social worker to take on Saul, who needs home care. Gradually, they form a close bond, which leads to them having intimate relations. Saul’s brother Isaac and daughter Sara are naturally opposed to this and force them apart. At the same time, Sylvia’s other problems surface as her mother (Jessica Harper) reappears at Olivia’s home, wanting to be in the lives of her grandchildren, including Anna. When Sylvia finally confronts her mother, the secret of her sexual abuse by her father is revealed—which, in turn, justifies much of what has happened to her since childhood.

Franco’s previous films, which often featured trauma and intense drama, have often had tragic endings. Happily, he has chosen to make Memory in a more hopeful manner. The affection between the two damaged people, Sylvia and Saul, is treated with empathy and care. Two gifted actors, Jessica Chastain and Peter Sarsgaard, are given the emotional space and enough well-constructed scenes in which to convincingly expose their damaged but inwardly beautiful inner lives. These aren’t Oscar performances but they’re moving and convincing. The cast in general—the legendary Jessica Harper (Suspiria, Phantom of the Paradise), Merrit Wever (Godless, Nurse Jackie) and young Brooke Timber—offer fine support to the film.

Memory is a moving, intimate drama, which should be seen and supported.



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