Movie Review: A Son Remembers his Crusading Colombian Dad — “Memories of My Father”

When he thinks of his father, the memories of the distant past are in vivid color. It’s the present day that seems monochromatic, colorless and harsh.

That’s how Héctor remembers his sainted Dad in “Memories of My Father,” based on a novelistic memoir by Colombian writer Héctor Abad Faciolince. That book (“Oblivion: A Memoir” in English) becomes a sweet, sentimental and often moving Colombian story in the hands of Spain’s greatest cinematic sentimentalist — Fernando Trueba (“Belle Epoch”).

The “present” in “Memories” is the 1980s, when Hector (Juan Pablo Urrego) is summoned home from college in Turin, Italy. Dad has been forced into retirement at his Colombian university, and he’s to be feted before he leaves.

But “home” is Medellin, a long-troubled city just then taking its place as a waypoint on South America’s cocaine pipeline, a town that taught the world the meaning of “cartel.” Young Héctor sees the tearful tribute-farewell his colleagues and students have prepared for his father, also named Héctor. And he remembers the colorful, doted-on childhood this celebrated public health crusader, college professor and social gadfly gave him.

Trueba’s younger brother David scripted “Memories,” and the star of David’s best known film in this country, “Living With Eyes Closed,” is the perfect choice to embody this man of learning, letters and principles, the one who would teach his doted-on twelve-year-old (Nicolás Reyes Cano plays the youngest Héctor) those values back in the early ’70s.

The script and the wonderful Javier Cámara create an Atticus Finch image for Dr. Héctor Abad Gómez, a man who agitates, takes direct action and lectures his public health students about the “five needs for healthy growth” (in Spanish, with English subtitles) — “Air, water, food, shelter and affection!”

It’s the latter that we see him shower on his only boy, a kid raised with one younger sister, and four older ones. The kid comes along to university to see the medical cadavers Dad uses for his lectures and watches his father in action, taking students as field workers into the poor barrios of Medellin as part of project Futures for Children.

And when little Héctor, and even older Héctor screws up, his atheist father in Catholic Colombia is the one who makes a teachable moment out of it. A pal talks the kid into breaking the window of a Jewish neighbor and yelling anti-Semitic slurs. Dad marches Héctor over for an apology and tells him the story of Kristallnacht to point out just how wrong he was.

His little sister falls into the sea, unable to swim, and Héctor doesn’t spring into action? His father is a believer in shame as a teaching tool.

Trueba creates an immersive version of the privileged life the kid grew up in, the nanny nun the kid is only supposed to pay just so much attention to, sisters with boyfriends, one sister who has learned English and guitar playing well enough to make the Stones’ “Ruby Tuesday” her favorite song.

I kept thinking of Alfonso Cuaron’s “Roma,” which despite being similar in themes, look (more washed out) and length, plays much longer due to his opaque, meandering narrative that really doesn’t go anywhere.

Trueba uses images, not voice-over narration, to tell this story, which can be patience-testing as we pick up on the layers of family life and Dad’s sense of ethics and moral responsibility for the poor in his city and his country, sympathies that get him criticized and threatened, with “Comunista” spray painted on their house.

There are bursts of violence outside their and the viewer’s field of vision, reminders of what was starting to happen in Medellin, even before the cartels amped up the violence in the early ’80s.

What young Héctor remembers are the ways his sisters chased him from the room when they wanted to talk about boys, his father taking him to grown-up movies that moved the old man but put the kid to sleep, at seeing his father cry at an impending family tragedy.

Cámara holds the film together and touches us with the moments we see him teaching important things to his son like compassion and responsibility to his son. And he lets us see Héctor Sr.’s human foibles as the kid REALLY screws up and tests a parent’s love. Dad’s belief in his son is unshakable, even if we wish he’d get a little tougher with the kid who seems to be his father’s favorite.

There’s just enough Colombian history to let us see a country’s descent into hard times, and plenty of family history pointing to a patriarch’s courage and sense of purpose in the face of that.

And in Cámara, a favorite of filmmaker Pedro Almodovar as well, we have the perfect player to embody a Colombian of virtue and accomplishment, a noble figure worthy of being celebrated in an era when so many Colombian men gained global fame on “Wanted” posters.

Rating: unrated, violence, sex, profanity

Cast: Javier Cámara, Juan Pablo Urrego, Nicolás Reyes Cano, Patricia Tamayo and Kami Zea.

Credits: Directed by Fernando Trueba, scripted by David Trueba, based on a memoir by Héctor Abad Faciolince. A Cohen Media Group release.

Running time: 2:16

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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