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TSPDT 2013: La ciénaga

Posted by martinteller on April 30, 2013

In the midst of hot, sticky Argentine summer, a well-to-do family vacations at their country estate.  Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Gregorio (Martín Adjemián) are constantly inebriated and lethargic.  Their daughter Momi (Sofía Bertolotto) spends most of her time in the company of their indigenous servant Isabel (Andrea López), and may even have a crush on her.  Their son Joaquin (Diego Baenas) lost an eye four years ago and is overdue for surgery.  Their other son José (Juan Cruz Bordeu) gets into fights and is sleeping with Gregorio’s former — or possibly current — lover Mercedes (Silvia Bayle).  And he may also have yearnings for their other daughter, Vero (Leonora Balcarce).  Mecha’s cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán) has two boys and two girls of her own, and the children all spend a long weekend at the estate.

The word you’ll see most often in reviews of this film is “decay”.  It’s hard to avoid saying it.  The pool is filthy.  The electricity goes off and on.  There is no sense of order.  “Nothing works”, Mecha laments.  This is soon after she herself slipped and fell on one of the wine glasses she perpetually carries, and neither her husband nor their drunken guests could be bothered to help her.  No one is doing much of anything and the overwhelming mood of the film is chaos.  Not a manic, Marx Brothers-esque chaos, but a snapshot of family breakdown.

This is Lucrecia Martel’s first film, and I would say the depiction of this sort of quiet disorder is its strongest asset.  The camerawork is handheld and in your face, but without the jittery effects one usually gets with such techniques.  The viewer is led into the scenario with no information and given little along the way.  It takes most of the running time to get a handle on the characters and their relationships to each other.

The sense of spiritual emptiness and decadent ennui is palpable in Mecha’s household, exacerbated by the feeling of oppressive humidity (the title translates as “The Swamp”).  Several times we see the television reporting on people who have seen the Virgin Mary in a water tower, but for these people it is only background noise, accessible only through the news reports.  The children are starting to inherit their parents’ racism and they run rampant without attention or supervision.

Despite the talent on display — and the cast is uniformly natural and convincing — I must admit I’m not all that enthusiastic about the movie.  I appreciate everything it’s doing, but perhaps the social messages were lost on me without the proper cultural context.  I can’t help thinking more contrast between Mecha’s family and Tali’s family might have been more enlightening.  By wallowing in the unpleasantness of Mecha’s household so much, the film becomes a tad wearisome and teeters on the verge of becoming too one-note.

Still, it’s a thoughtful film… one that requires some work (and patience) on the viewer’s part, but is very good at establishing a particular mood.  Rating: Good (75)


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