Get me some ice.
The debut feature from Argentinian writer/director Lucrecia Martel is entitled La Ciénaga or The Swamp in English. That’s a name no American circa 2018 can read without conjuring allusions to the Donald Trump campaign motto “Drain the Swamp”. And it’s not a superficial thought either once you start to meet the characters she puts onscreen. We’re talking a not-SO-well-to-do middle class family dripping with a classist sense of entitlement and a racist superiority complex. The adults bask in the sun of the Salta summer, stumbling around with wine glasses in-hand while accusing their Native American maid of stealing towels. The children run about with chips on their shoulders (teens), loaded hunting rifles (tweens), and adventurous dispositions that can never align safely with the indifference of impaired guardians (kids).
Transport them to today’s United States and you bet they’d have MAGA hats strewn about the living room. They’re selfish whether explicitly by choice or implicitly thanks to the environment in which they were raised and dysfunctional to the point of farce until the true insidiousness of their actions is revealed with pointed drama leading to karmic physical and emotional injury. The Salta-born Martel does no one any favors as she shows the world a warts-and-all view of her hometown: the ego, bigotry, confusion, regret, anger, and hubris shone under a spotlight from which they cannot escape. They walk and talk with chests out only to find themselves bloodied and bruised on the ground. And no matter what occurs, life seems to simply move forward without a hitch.
It’s privilege incarnate—highlighted by their constant berating of employees while unable to bring themselves to answer a telephone that’s in arm’s reach. They speak about the fun they could have during a weekend across the border in Bolivia buying cheap school supplies for the kids while always clouding the conversations with fear towards how “dangerous” the journey would prove. So scared of the world surrounding them, they use that privilege to remain in lounge chairs on the fringes of a dirty swimming pool they’d never actually go inside. They become the people they said they’d never become and turn from kind to vicious (or vice versa) on a dime depending on how the words of another impact their carefully cultivated yet wholly transparent image of strength.
This is the film. There’s no mystery to solve or romance to evolve. La Ciénaga is merely an unfiltered look at a family that probably isn’t too far-removed from many of your own. Martel doesn’t have to expand on what occurs onscreen because every action is overtly performed with its intentions laid bare—whether the characters performing them realize or not. This lends an infectious comedy to the proceedings that wonderfully contrasts the heavy subject matter being discussed. It’s why we appreciate José’s (Juan Cruz Bordeu) desire to go home after his mother’s (Graciela Borges‘ Mecha) accident, laugh at the absurd revelation that his girlfriend (Silvia Baylé‘s Mercedes) was his mom’s friend and dad’s (Martín Adjemián‘s Gregorio) former mistress, and ultimately wince at his return’s resulting Oedipean display.
Martel isn’t interested in hiding the ugly truth surrounding this existence with long shots of idyllic countryside to show the breadth of Salta for which this family is only a small part either. She instead shoots everything in close-up to capture the grotesqueries in all their glory. We meet Mercedes, Gregorio, and their friends with the camera lingering upon torsos to immortalize guts, wrinkles, and hair as our ears are assaulted by the magnified scrapping of cheap chairs across a concrete ground. It’s as though they are zombies lurching through their day without a shred of responsibility or interest, the smashing of glass and thud of a fall barely registering with any of them until Mercedes’ daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) runs out to see what happened.
The film continues as a series of events not easily shaken from Mercedes’ one-eyed son (Diego Baenas‘ Joaquín) and his scratched and scarred friend pointing guns at young “Indian” boys they accuse of beastiality to Momi’s unyielding display of love towards her maid Isabel (Andrea López) that reveals itself as sexual harassment once we see the latter’s discomfort and inability to stop it without risking her job. There are possible incestuous overtones between José and Leonora Balcarce‘s Vero (I couldn’t quite place her as far as being Momi’s sister or friend); obvious patriarchal frustration courtesy of Mercedes’ friend Tali (Mercedes Morán) always needing permission from her husband to do anything; and little Luchi’s (Sebastián Montagna) fear of “dog-rats” turns into an insatiable curiosity that risks his wellbeing.
They’re all on the cusp of destruction, empowered enough to loudly state they’ll do anything to avoid it despite quick to relent when an excuse not of their creation supplies an out to simply lean into the life of sloth they crave. They worry about money as a means to complain and avoid the harsh truths of reality for the comfort of zero responsibility back in Mommy’s arms. And whenever an event occurs to test their love or convictions, they just shrug and carry on rather than fight because their wants have always been tainted by image as opposed to desire. Watching the thing they want most disappear doesn’t quite register because they wanted it on a lark. At one point Mercedes literally replaces Isabel with an icemaker.
The latter is the film’s single redeemable character. You could argue Luchi is spared from judgment too considering his age and innocence, but his being in this life with figures like his father and Mercedes’ family as influence means his future doesn’t bode well. That’s why Isabel is such an enigma within the whole. She’s the target of ire and exploitation rather than purveyor. She’s trying to survive between two worlds, carefully attempting to balance her need for her torturous employers and escape into the arms of a boy (Fabio Villafane‘s Perro) who’d burn those bourgeois pricks to the ground if given the chance. Isabel’s selfishness is for self-preservation whereas the others seek comfort, happiness, and distraction. She’s the light this swamp’s perpetual cycle of humanity’s worst qualities snuffs out.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
courtesy of FilmStruck