Venice 2018 review: Memories of My Body (Garin Nugroho)

Certain movies have that almost magical ability of turning any frame they contain into a fascinating vision, whatever is looked at inside it: people, actions, places, landscapes. Memories of My Body falls into this category. Long-time Indonesian director Garin Nugroho (more than twenty feature films in a career of over thirty years, with previous appearances in Berlin and Venice – in 2006 for Opera Jawa) manages to mesmerize us all along his fictional reenactment of several episodes of the real life of dancer and choreographer Rianto. Rianto practices a traditional dance style from his native island of Java, the Lengger dance, in which men assume feminine appearance and movements.

Sadly, it is not difficult to picture all the bullying and rejection a performer of such an art can suffer from narrow-minded or ill-intentioned people. Manifestations of such violent behavior force Juno (the alter ego of Rianto, whom we follow from childhood to adulthood) to move from one location to another, bringing to an abrupt end each chapter of Memories of My Body. These violent outbursts can involve one individual assaulting another, or an entire group enforcing discriminatory views of how society should be – that is without androgynous dancing, homosexuality, or political contest of any kind (swiftly written off as ‘communism’, a label that can be lethal due to the anti-communist propaganda and purges conducted in Indonesia).

But quite to our surprise, and contentment, this is not the dimension of the story that captures the most of Nugroho’s attention. The director is far more interested in the beauty which arises constantly in the world than in the ugliness wishing to undermine it. This yearning for beauty and desire which Nugroho manages to convey on the screen is the reason for the charm that radiates from his movie. Juno / Rianto is our guide, not only through the story of Memories of My Body, but also on the path leading to that sensation: to be able to find or to put desirability into every thing we look at, every interaction, every contact. The short intermissions between the chapters, where Juno addresses the camera and dances out of context with us as his only audience, emphasize the direct link established between him and us.

The Lengger dance is presented as something so strong, that it holds the power of bending the way the world behaves wherever it is performed. This is why it can also spark brutal reactions of refutation – some people are too afraid of letting go. The ones who do let go receive an immaterial yet treasurable reward, which Nugroho passes on to us through the most memorable scenes of Memories of My Body. One of these is a wonderful intimate moment shared by Juno and a boxer he became close to. The boxer has to train for an upcoming fight, so he asks Juno to help him by coming into the ring. Blindfolding himself, he tries to hit Juno by following his instinct. Juno not only moves through the ring but dances as well, transforming the training session into an improvised and dreamlike ballet carrying ephemeral but intense sensations of beauty, tenderness, and sensuality between Juno, the boxer, and us.