By Mark James on October 2, 2013
What Now? Remind Me is, despite its name, an extraordinarily lucid, moving portrait of illness, artistry, and, rarest of all, time. Portuguese filmmaker Joachim Pinto lenses himself as he goes through experimental drug trials for HIV and Hepatitis-C, partially as a note-taking exercise and obliquely as a last will and testament. The drugs he takes make him forgetful and scattered, and he’s afraid they might not work, or they might poison him along the way. But before long, the elegiac quality of the film lifts to allow amused, contemplative shadings to drape themselves over Pinto’s memory, letting tenderness and humor nose their way in.
The running time is over two and a half hours, though putting yourself through the entire course of treatment is more than good for you: it shows you the importance of saving your own life.
The notebook of a year of rest, this movie attains the religious insights of a true Sabbath. Non-practicing Pinto gives himself over to the arms of his Christ-like husband Nuno, and illness draws out the beatitude latent in fatigue. Weakened but essentially unhurt, Pinto delivers a serene rejoinder to the unseen doctors and viruses arrayed in tandem against his life. He is alive; who is more alive than someone for whom slipping in and out of beams of light counts as a triumph? Everyone else, with their frenetic energies, their evasions and their aggrandizements, inflates their bodies with death. Pared down, Pinto is the stubborn core of vivacity. He may be skinny, but his skin bears no superfluity, except possibly under his eyes.
Though Pinto has worked primarily as a sound designer, it’s clear he has scopophilic tendencies. The film is teeming with close-ups of flies, bees, frogs, slugs, protists, plants, and trees. A trip to a museum with wax casts of syphilis victims’ genitals is an opportunity to linger on each one, the cream-colored paraffin lit so as to offset its tinted and enflamed pustules and penises. He visits a lab in order to film the virus he’s hosting, but he has to make do with filming the technicians at work. The leaning Gate of Europa tower in Madrid, once for him a reference to an Almodóvar film but repossessed in memory by the economic crisis, appears in the background of an extended shot of an elegant butterfly, out of focus and less compelling than the ancient creature’s alien and filigreed wings. A dying wasp writhes on its back, straining its antennae as much as its legs, grasping equally at salvation and sensation.
This is the heart of the film and the message which it is worth sitting through to receive. Touching, handsomely shot, and historically significant, Pinto’s film achieves a spiritual grace which is rare enough in the world, but that he does it by attention to the specific qualities of sickness and cinema makes What Now? Remind Me all the more of a treasure. Do watch this movie if you have a stake in being alive.
Early on, Pinto mentions he’d tried to use a calendar to keep track of his good days and bad days. There were only bad days, so he gave up. Winston Churchill referred to his depression as “a black dog” that followed him, but Pinto is trailed by four lighter-coated companions. They are true beasts: They look like unmaned lions, or small bears. They suffer their own medical complications and keep Pinto and his husband Nuno on regular work hours while they plant trees on their land. The dogs are the embodiment of good nature, with unmistakable smiles and instinctual care for the sick. Although in his diaristic voiceovers Pinto floats theories about the origin of viruses in the domestication of animals and agriculture, he counter-poses this with scenes of pastoral bliss with his dogs panting in the tall grass and buttercups, nuzzling with handsome Nuno. Evil or suffering may have an entry point into the world, but Pinto can have no regrets.
“Lights and sounds hurt me,” he says. It must be a difficult admission for a filmmaker, but it also reminds us of the real pain inextricable from what we are watching. Pinto is tender in both senses—to the touch, and to those around him. Recalling the Vietnamese classmates he met at university in East Germany, a year after the war ended, he says, “As if extreme experiences lead to extreme sensitivities.” It’s an extreme year for everybody: his friend Jó is starting the same drug trial, the rain has stopped falling, the banking crisis is a constant, raw pain. But extremity isn’t exceptional anymore. This is the way things will be now. From now on, his body will hurt until it dies. Water lilies on the pond bear ashes from frequent fires. He develops resistances to the treatments.
How did I get here? he asks. He means the island as well as the present. He casts a wide net for answers. He considers the Neanderthals, the origin of language, natural life, evolution, extinction. In 1957, the year he was born, Sputnik launches into space to look back at Earth. In 1957, proteins are discovered in viruses; they are called interferons, the name of the medicine he is on. In Germany, he recalls meeting a young activist named Angela Merkel. Now, she ministers to the disease in the Eurozone economy, a comorbid infection with his HIV. She puts it on an experimental treatment with known drastic side effects, including health cuts. She doesn’t know if it will work.
Pinto doesn’t activate memory to search for a distant source of blame. He’s too tired to care about that. His memories comfort him and allow him to relive moments of joy and communion, though they are, unhappily, punctuated by the deaths of friends and icons: Passolini dies, then it’s Foucault, then it’s Guy Hocquenghem. Pinto and Nuno are in Morocco to film Carmen Maura, then it’s the beginning of antiretrovirals. In Paris, it’s the support and presence from Claudio, then the death of Phillip Brooks. Then it’s last time “we” were all together, the last concert of Nuno’s metal band held, spreading a friend’s ashes in the ocean, encountering Rufus, their first dog. Then he’s in his house on the island, and we are with him.
Half an hour before it’s all over, Joachim stops the treatment, too. He couldn’t go on; it was too painful. In Madrid to receive his final test results, he reads an illustrated manuscript of the history of the world, written in the 1600s. Over an image of Eros, he thinks he sees the words “Nuno” and “love.” It’s actually a Virgil quote, “NUNC SCIO QUID SIT AMOR,” “now I know what love is.” It’s the same thing. Nuno is nunc, now, the present without length, the site of all duration and what all experience must pass through. We are living in sad times, he says, but now I know what love is.
And the film continues: In the car, after treatment has ended and life goes on, the rains come again. The virus will go too; maybe not for Joachim, but for humans. Though they’ll still die some other way, they’ll have been alive. What Now? Remind Me makes it seem like enough.
The Upside: Epic in scale at over two and a half hours it rewards patient viewers with a very intimate portrait and affirmation of living.
The Downside: None.
On The Side: Winner of the 2013 Locarno Jury Prize and the FIPRESCI award at the Swiss festival. It’s currently playing the New York Film Festival, but no US release is yet scheduled.