What is the nature of truth?
-Review by Darrel Manson


This page was created on April 9, 2001
This page was last updated on May 17, 2005

Click to enlargeDirected by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan
Story by Jonathan Nolan

Guy Pearce .... Leonard Shelby
Carrie-Anne Moss .... Natalie
Joe Pantoliano .... Teddy
Mark Boone Junior .... Burt
Stephen Tobolowsky .... Sammy Jankis
Jorja Fox .... Leonard's Wife
Harriet Sansom Harris .... Mrs. Jankis Callum
Keith Rennie .... Dodd
Larry Holden .... Jimmy Grantz
Russ Fega .... Waiter
Thomas Lennon .... Doctor
Kimberly Campbell .... Blonde
Marianne Muellerleile .... Tattooist

Produced by Elaine Dysinger (co-producer), Aaron Ryder (executive producer), Emma Thomas (associate producer), Jennifer Todd (producer), Suzanne Todd (producer), William Tyrer (executive producer)
Original music by David Julyan
Cinematography by Wally Pfister
Film Editing by Dody Dorn

Rated R for violence, language and some drug content.


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Some memories are best forgotten
Click to enlargeSTUDIO SYNOPSIS:
In MEMENTO, a man and his wife are attacked and robbed. The woman dies, and the man is left with both a serious head injury that gives him memory loss, and an urgent thirst for revenge. As he sets off in pursuit of his wife's killer, he becomes increasingly confused about what he is doing, so he tattoos notes onto his skin and takes Polaroid pictures to remind himself of what has transposed. An intricate mystery with a backwards chronology, MEMENTO is written and directed by Christopher Nolan, based on a short story by his brother, Jonathan Nolan.

Some memories are best forgotten

Review by

A doctoral student in Religious Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. Currently designing a course on Religion and Film.

Click to enlargeSome of the best films reveal themselves fully only through multiple viewings. Memento is one of those films that challenge the viewer to return over and over again. Each time I watch this Christopher Nolan masterpiece, I discover something more. One evening I paused to consider the significance of the Gideon Bible, which makes two brief and apparently ironic appearances. What was the relationship of this sacred text to Leonard Shelby’s predicament? Of course -- the only other written material of any significance was contained in Leonard’s frantic (and transitory) notes to himself and the permanent versions of theses notes, which he tattooed on his body.

The Bible makes its first appearance in Memento early on (Scene 4), in Leonard Shelby’s exploration of the “anonymous motel room” in which he finds himself. He opens the drawer of the bedside table, quipping that he expects to find nothing there, “except the Gideon Bible, which I, of course, read religiously.” So saying, he flips through the book and the camera offers us an extreme close-up of two pages: The first is headed “Help in Time of Trouble” and the second is the end of Leviticus 24, the famous verses of restitution: “an eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth…” which include the injunction that one who takes a human life shall forfeit his own. Thus, this secular film subtly embraces a concept that arises out of Hebrew Bible early on and gave me cause to reflect on other themes introduced by Leonard, its central character.

Leonard attempts to overcome his battle with Korsokoff’s Syndrome, a verifiable type of anterograde amnesia , by making himself endless notes and memos and by committing those he believes to be the most important to permanent record by tattooing them on his own body. He believes that his written notes will not only help him overcome his deficiency, but will actually be superior to relying on normal human memory. In a conversation with Teddy he says,

Memory's not perfect. It's not even that good. Ask the police; eyewitness testimony is unreliable. The cops don't catch a killer by sitting around remembering stuff. They collect facts, make notes, draw conclusions. Facts, not memories: that's how you investigate. I know, it's what I used to do. Memory can change the shape of a room or the colour of a car. It's an interpretation, not a record. Memories can be changed or distorted and they're irrelevant if you have the facts.

Unfortunately, both Teddy and Natalie sometimes feed him incomplete or even information, material that is designed to mislead or manipulate him. Teddy, for example, stops Leonard from writing down his full name and the fact that he is a police officer. Since Leonard has no short-term memory, he is not able to record that information after Teddy has gone. Natalie goes further in her attempt to manipulate Leonard. After he has physically lashed out at her in anger for calling his late wife a whore, she walks out, sits in her car just long enough for Leonard to have forgotten the incident, and returns to claim that Dodd had beaten her up and asking Leonard to get rid of Dodd. Through these two episodes, and others, the audience comes to question the validity of any of the written material that Leonard is relying on. To make matters worse, the written “facts” of police reports and other documents having pages missing and many blacked-out sections. They too seem to be unreliable to us, yet Leonard trusts them and builds upon them, adopting their truths and recording them as his own. Once they are committed to his own handwriting, they become a canon upon which he relies.

Click to enlargeLike Leonard, Jews, Christians, and Muslims have long relied on a written text to give them the truth. Although textual scholars and scientists have been questioning the validity of the Judeo-Christian canon, conservative members of the Abrahamic religious traditions continue to hold fast to the notion that the texts upon which they rely are the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. The average Jew or Christian may no longer see truth in every word, but the text as a whole is still granted validity. As with Leonard the written word is accepted as fact. As scholars, we play the role of the audience to Memento; we see the text as the faulty product of human construction. But the average member of text-based religious traditions plays the role of Leonard: the text is a canon, a rule by which lives are governed, sometimes dangerously so.

The second appearance of the Bible in Memento (Scene 17) underscores this danger. Almost midway through the film, Leonard once again finds himself in an anonymous motel room. Once again, he opens the bedside table expecting to find the Bible. But he, and we are shocked to discover that a handgun is lying on top of the book. Leviticus had dictated revenge and here lies the tool to carry out that vengeance. Neither the motel room nor the handgun is his: they belong to Dodd. But he now takes the gun that he will eventually use to carry out his mission of revenge. Not only has Natalie sent Leonard after Dodd based on false information, she has inadvertently armed him to continue his mission (which, we later learn, may not even be justified).

False information, once recorded, becomes fact to Leonard. Over the course of the story, we begin to suspect that Leonard’s most important tattoo, the “scripture” that governs his life, is not true in itself. As we relive the attack on his wife through a series of flashbacks, we see that his wife may not have died in the attack at all. In scene 44, we have two brief glimpses of her. In the first flashback in this scene, prompted by Teddy, Leonard sees her eyes blink under the shower curtain shroud. About a minute later, once again prompted by Teddy, we see through Leonard’s eyes as the shower curtain is drawn off her face and she turns to face him (and us). Thus, the tattoo across his chest, which reads in mirrored script: “JOHN G. RAPED AND MURDERED MY WIFE” may be the original lie that leads to all the other errors committed in the name of this “truth.” Only through watching the entire story unfold do we come to question the veracity of Leonard’s repeatedly motivating text.

As members of Jewish, Christian and, most recently, Muslim traditions, we have lately come to question the veracity of our particular recorded “truths.” The ancient canonical texts seem to promise a certain tract of land to the Jews. Relying on these texts, modern Jews are prepared to do almost anything to acquire and hold a strip of land that is not large enough to truly sustain them all. Many Christians, on the other hand, see themselves as heirs to a truth and tradition that promises salvation to those who are prepared to assert that particular truth as fundamental and damnation to those who would deny it. Declaring, “God is on our side,” the United States (which claims to be a Christian nation) recently waged war on a Muslim country that likewise believed that God was behind them. Each of them could support their actions based on their own canonical texts, documents that “prove” the righteousness of each cause. Through the plot of Memento, we discover that Leonard’s “facts” are tainted by the agendas of those who feed him information. Both Teddy and Natalie manipulate him by supplying him with information that support their own private schemes. Textual scholars have likewise suggested that much of the material included in the Hebrew and Christian Bibles and in the Qur’an served to promote the agendas of the times and the contributors. YHWH was the local divinity of the city of Jerusalem before the city became David’s capitol; the Epistle to the Corinthians was not written by Paul, but supported the misogynistic agenda of its “pseudo-Pauline” author; anti-Jewish verses of the fifth Surah of the Qur’an were revealed to Muhammad after a group of Jewish merchants attacked him. But the average adherent to any one of these three groups is as yet unaware of the questions raised by scholars, or is as yet psychologically unprepared to accept the answers. A film like Memento affords them, as moviegoers, the chance to reflect on the veracity of the closed canons to which they ally themselves.

All three traditions share, to some extent, a belief in the Hebrew Bible and in portions of Leviticus. The notions of vengeance, of a life for a life, often colour their outlooks on the world. The great debate over capital punishment often comes back to this question of Lex Talionis, the law of retaliation first reflected in the Code of Hammurabi. Moreover, history has recorded many incidences of Levitican vengeance carried out in the name of the supreme truth of one religion or another. Leonard, too, although he will never get his wife or his life back, is motivated to kill in the name of vengeance. However, like Leonard, the average religious practitioner can be manipulated by governments or leaders with hidden agendas. The past few decades have been marred by battles and wars in which each of the three Abrahamic Traditions have claimed truth and righteousness to be on their side. An entire political nation has been built upon that “truth” based merely upon a written text whose adherents claim to be divine.

Click to enlargeFinally, Leonard’s “truth” surmounts the passage of time. Since he cannot make new long-term memories, his most recent long-term memory is the apparent death of his wife, which ostensibly occurred just before he sustained the head-injury that brought on his retrograde amnesia. Everything that has happened since that time has meaning only inasmuch as it helps him to avenge that tragedy. The same can be said of the Jews, of the Christians and of the Muslims. Jerusalem’s “Wailing Wall” stands as a testament to the importance of the past, as does their claim to a part of the Middle East’s “Fertile Crescent.” Muslim claims to the city of Jerusalem are founded on an even more tenuous entitlement, based on their Qur’anic text. For Christians awaiting the return of the Messiah for almost two thousand years, the passage of time is similarly unimportant – their Lord will return “any day now.” Moreover, many still give great credence to misogynistic interpretations of the Gospels and Epistles of the Christian Bible, analyses that were formed even as that Bible was being collected to form the canon.

More importantly, the Code of Hammurabi upon which the Lex Talionis of Judeo-Christian and Qur’anic canons are founded, and which justifies Leonard’s quest, has lost its original meaning over the passage of time. Its creation was intended to limit retaliation to an equal injury, not to validate it. As Martin Luther King wrote in The Meaning of Nonviolence: “The old eye for an eye philosophy ends up leaving everybody blind ” for the purpose of that first canon had been subverted.

Click to enlargeLeonard’s tattooed canon is what he relies on to give meaning to his life, rather than the actions he can no longer remember. But it is his actions that have meaning to those who live outside his canon. When he refuses to kill Dodd for pay, Natalie is furious. He would be willing to kill for his dead wife, but she has no meaning to Natalie: “I wasn’t … married to her,” she screams. His canon, the rule by which he lives – to avenge his wife’s death – is of no import to her or to Teddy, but his ability to kill, when manipulated to do so, is all that matters. Jews, Christians and Muslims can all be equally manipulated by those who give lip service to their creeds but in reality have their own agendas.

Memento gives us cause to reflect on human reliance on texts recorded long ago, texts whose “facts” are no longer verifiable. Like Leonard, we are need to search for the real truth, but, like Leonard, some are unable or unwilling to look too deeply into what has made us what we are. Leonard claims to know what he is: “Leonard Shelby….from San Francisco,” but, as Teddy twice points out: that is who he was, not what he has become. Teddy’s reassurance that “So you lie to yourself to be happy. Nothing wrong with that – we all do. Who cares if there's a few little things you'd rather not remember?” (Scene 44) is in reality not at all reassuring. Yet we, like Leonard, continue to recite: “I have to believe that my actions still have meaning, even if I can’t remember them.”

Click to enlargeMEMENTO
What is the nature of truth?

Pastor, Artesia Christian Church, Artesia, CA

"But what is truth? Is truth unchanging law? We both have truths -- are mine the same as yours?" --Pilate in "Jesus Christ Superstar"

What is the nature of truth? Is truth made up of facts? Is truth subjective? Can you believe something into truth? Can you create your own truth?

Click to enlargeIn Memento these questions form the real issue of the movie. In the movie, Leonard Shelby is a man who cannot create short-term memories. Click to enlargeHe can remember things from before his injury, but nothing after that sticks. As he tells one person, if he talks to someone very long, he may forget why they're talking. And yet, he's on a quest to find his wife's killer and get revenge. He does so with the aid of Polaroid photos and many notes, some of which are tattooed on his body.

Click to enlargeBut are all those notes true? Are they true because he's written them down? What if he makes a mistake, and it is now written down? If it's in his handwriting, he acknowledges it as true and acts as if it is true from there on.

This is a wonderful film in the tradition of "Lone Star" and "The Usual Suspects." It's not exactly non-linear, but it is certainly told in an unusual fashion. Click to enlarge(I?d say more, but that is part of the fun of discovery as the film unfolds.) What is it that makes up truth? Are the gospel accounts of Jesus truth? Is that the same thing as being factual?

What about those working in the Jesus Project? Are they finding truth or are they creating their own? Is that different than the development of the canonical gospels -- were they the evangelists? creation of the truth as they wanted it to be? And what of us? How do we know what is true in our own lives, especially in our lives of faith? Whom do we trust to give us truth? Is our own experience enough to determine truth? Is the Bible enough to establish something as true?

Pilate may have asked the key question.

Click to enlargeClick to enlargeClick to enlarge


Truth as a Way of Life, rather than the Facts of Life

In the Bible, TRUTH occasionally has the meaning of emphatic genuineness and facts. Generally however, it has a metaphysical use with a practical spiritual end.

Truth is reality in relation to the vital interests of the soul. It is primarily something to be realized and done (a way of life), rather than something to be learned or known (facts). Truth exists more in how we live, than in what we think of as facts.

In the largest aspect TRUTH is God?s nature finding expression in His creation, in revelation, in Jesus Christ in whom ?grace and truth came? (Jn 1:17), and finally in our apprehending, accepting and practically realizing the essential values of life, which are the will of God (Jn 1:14; 8:32; 17:19; 18:37 f; 1 Jn 2:21; 3:19).

TRUTH is personalized in Jesus Christ, who truly expresses God and presents the true ideal for living. He brings harmony to a disordered world. Hence, He is the Truth (Jn 14:6), the true expression (Jn 1:1) of God.

Truth as a way of life, rather than mere facts.

Truth is not discerned intellectually,
it is discerned spiritually.
--OSWALD CHAMBERS (1874?1917)

One can?t always be defending the truth;
there must be a time to feed on it.
--C. S. LEWIS (1898?1963)

From the death of the old the new proceeds,
And the life of truth from the death of creeds.

I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.
--SIR ISAAC NEWTON (1642?1727)

What are the axiomatic truths upon which all human life may rest with confidence?
They are not many:
Only God is great.
Only God is wise.
Apart from God, nothing matters.
Only what we do in God will remain to us at last.
Human sin is real.
With God there is forgiveness.
Only what God protects is safe.
--A. W. TOZER (1897?1963)

No truths are simple, especially those of Scripture. But as we pursue them and participate in them more fully, they begin to reveal to us a life deeper and more integrated than we ever could have known otherwise.


Subject: Memento
Date: Tue, 24 Jul 2001
From: Robert

What the movie brings out for me is the vast power of our own memories and how ruined we are without this great resource. It's fascinating to see Carrie Anne Moss's character in particular adopt a different personality each time we see her (catching on to our hero's condition). Each moment is its own little encapsulated world - or so it seems to Leonard who is unable, because of his condition, to see the big picture and so is incredibly vulnerable. This world we are treated to is strangely one-dimensional but absolutely real to the protaganist, who fervently believes he has mastered his condition, not treated to the details behind the simple one-liners he adds to his photos. The film, though told backwards, actually builds up to a great 'shock' climactic ending, which speaks volumes about our constant battle to have integrity in our own thoughts and actions and asks whether we can truly trust ourselves.

Date: Tue, 17 Jul 2001
From: SSB

Finally, in the world of movies that offer quick and easy films, comes a picture that makes you take the time to think. I saw this film with two others who were scratching their heads in unison throughout the show, instead of letting it roll and enjoying the outcomes. Nice "Hitchcockian" twists and turns!

Subject: Memento
Date: Sat, 23 Jun 2001
From: Silvanus

A Man haunted by a grievance, so haunted that it becomes his entire conceptualization of himself. A Man haunted by guilt. So guilty that that guilt spun into a recreation of the same "sin" for himself. (What you deny others you will deny yourself. Had he not denied another woman compassion when her husband lost his memory?) A man involved in insurance. What is insurance really about? A man trapped in an eternal No Exit (we do glimpse him in an asylum) where he had made his "sin" real by murdering the "killer" of his "beloved". Amazing. Simply, utterly amazing.

Subject: Memento comment
Date: Tue, 8 May 2001
From: "Can Nakkas"

First of all I have to point out that I saw "Memento" last year in Switzerland (it was released earlier here in Europe) and it is the best movie I've ever seen by far. Only few other films made me feel this way, e.g. "A Simple Plan". It's not only the narrative structure that makes this film stand out, putting you in the same position as Leonard Shelby who's sufffering from anterograd amnesia, thus making him unable to create new memories. And it's not just the fact that the end is the beginning and the beginning the end , which may come closer to the true nature of reality than we'd like to believe ("I AM the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end"!).

What makes this film so special is that at it's core it's an existentialist study on the conditio humana, on human nature itself . Just like Leonard we create our own truth on a day by day basis. But by what rule of faith? As "Memento" portrays it, it is the quest for the meaning of life which makes us embrace one truth and discard the other. Leonard is lost in a world that makes no sense and has no meaning anymore. Everything that ever mattered to him (his wife, i.e. Love) is gone. But he isn't able to mourn and then continue with his life, because he doesn't have a life anymore. And he'll never will have one. He's stuck with the memories of his wife, the only memories he'll ever possess from now on. Letting go of them would mean he'd have to let go of his entire past, his entire life. Since he can't do that (or can he? "Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it") there's only one solution: what was important in is past must stay important forever, that's the only way he can maintain the illusion he's leading a meaningful existence. For Leonard this means searching for the fugitive killer and eventually meting out vengeance.

Since he can't ever really trust anyone, not even himself, this quest for vengeance takes on a tragic element: can he be sure that he's looking for the right man? Somehow he realizes that for him this question doesn't matter: the need to punish someone and make someone pay for what he and his wife had to endure is greater than the quest for truth. But how could we judge him? "Truth" simply doesn't exist anymore in his life, due to his condition. He makes it up while he's going. A metaphor for postmodern man? In essence this masterpiece shows us what happens when the journey becomes more important than the destination.

Nevertheless, there are no easy answers to the questions "Memento" raises. Many of the readers will say Jesus is the Truth. Of course He is. But what does that mean in everyday life? Does it mean a trivial WWJD? Yes, we should live our lives by The Book, but should we lead our lives "by the book"? Look the answers up in a book? Are the moral issues in life so easy? And where does the Holy Spirit fit in then? If anything this film makes people think about what they accept as truth, and moreover why they accept it as truth. Because they know/believe it's true, or because they want it to be true?

Can Nakkas

PS: As a note to the editor (not a part of my comment). I see you've listed the Jesus miniseries and reviewed it, so I wondered if you could add "Paul of Tarsus" to your list, too (as it is made by the same multinational production)? I for my part didn't think Johannes Brandrup did a good job as St Paul; not enough zeal and fervour if you ask me.

Memento ? 2001 Newmarket Capital Group. All Rights Reserved.