La Ciénaga

"Extraordinary"

La Ciénaga Review


Reviews of Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel's second feature, 2004's The Holy Girl, tended toward the same complaint: the plot was unshaped, despite the presence of an obviously gifted director. Call it a sophomore slump, then, because Martel already had one great film under her belt at the time. Released on DVD domestically right around the time The Holy Girl hit American theaters, 2001's La Ciénaga is the most remarkable debut in recent experience.

The title translates as "the swamp," but it's also the name of the Argentinean city that serves as the film's setting. In this sweltering backwater, two branches of the same large family are put back in contact when a pair of accidents lands a member of each in the clinic run by "the gringo," a local doctor. One group - a married couple with innumerable children and their constantly-present friends - lives in the city, comfortably, but still scraping to get by. The other - an heiress, her drunken husband, their innumerable children, and an indigenous housekeeper named Isabel - pass the hours in a lavish but crumbling estate attained through a ridiculously complex series of gates near the mountains outside La Ciénaga. When the city family pays their relatives a visit at this estate, the repressed drama of La Ciénaga gets underway.

And although there isn't much of a plot, there's plenty of this repressed drama; it rumbles under the surface of the proceedings like the thunder of the ever-threatening storms in the mountains nearby. Everything in La Ciénaga is tension, dysfunction, avoidance. But, just like those storms, this tension never quite breaks; it hangs in the air like the stifling heat and humidity, ever-present, everywhere.

Rather than plotting her material, Martel presents us with vignettes from the day-to-day lives of this rich cast of characters, and her film's seemingly desultory wandering mirrors the aimless lives it portrays seamlessly. (In fact the film is brilliantly structured, and its unfocused feel is part of its genius.) We see Mecha, the heiress (played, in a miraculous performance, by the great Argentinean actress Graciela Borges), pile endless abuse on the long-suffering maid, accusing her of stealing towels and sheets that no one could really want and pleading with her for ice to freshen her ever-present cocktail, even as Mecha's adolescent daughter Momi fixates on this same beleaguered woman, driving her mad with her wheedling for attention. Momi's older sister Verónica says that their mother is going to fire the maid, and Momi begs her not to, although the audience understands that no one is going to do much of anything except pack away liquor by the fetid, green pool. When Mecha drunkenly falls by this same pool, her son José (played by Borges's real-life son Juan Cruz Bordeu) is called home from Buenos Aires, where he's indifferently involved with a much-older woman named Mercedes; we're given to understand too that he and his sister Verónica are perhaps indecently close for siblings. (Throughout the film Martel shows us how, in this family, sex is just another aberration that blooms out of laziness and boredom.) Mercedes was at one time sleeping with Mecha's grotesquely vain (and always shit-faced-drunk) husband Gregorio (he spends hours weaving in front of the mirror he uses to dye his hair), and Mecha uses Mercedes's appearance to move him and his belongings to another room, lacking the energy to bother with actually evicting him. The city relatives are headed by timid Tali (played by another Argentinean great, Mercedes Morán, who couldn't be better); she's subtly bullied by her genuinely loving husband and is harried by a houseful of kids. And finally Mecha's housekeeper has romantic troubles of her own, and these spill over into the life of the family.

Martel, who also wrote, draws on her own childhood, so that a part of the film is told from a childlike perspective, too. One pack of barefoot kids, mostly boys, takes to the mountains for whole days, unsupervised and carrying guns. (Mecha mentions in passing that she "worries.") At Tali's home the stove is on and ladders lean against walls, inviting disaster. The older of the children tell the youngest a sinister story about a dog being raised as a pet whose owner discovers that his dog is in fact a gigantic rat, and the story haunts the children for the remainder of the film. And when Momi, starved for attention, actually dives into the horrifying swimming pool, even older brother José concedes astonishment. ("That pool is filthy," the housekeeper admonishes her later. "Don't go near it. You'll get sick.")

Nothing much is spoken of directly in La Ciénaga (one notable exception occurs when Mecha comes across her husband passed out face down and says, "What a pig you turned out to be"), but Martel has created an on-screen world that speaks volumes about the lives being led randomly in its midst. Hers is a unique sensibility (and an honest one; for example, she portrays very economically the racist barriers separating the European-descended Argentineans from the indigenous ones) and her style as a filmmaker fits it; she uses her camera suggestively and expressively, conveying both the intoxication and tedium of idleness with a true storyteller's unfailing eye. And her editing rhythms - especially in a wonderfully ominous opening sequence - align with her vision so skillfully that it requires some effort to remember that this film was her debut.

La Ciénaga is remarkable in its own right, but as a first effort it's truly extraordinary and Martel's is a subtly new sensibility. Watching it, I thought of similarly arresting debuts: David Lynch's Eraserhead, Antonioni's L'Avventura, Polanski's Knife in the Water. The name Lucrecia Martel is not so familiar to cineastes as those others, but, despite the lukewarm reception to her second feature, my guess is that it will be one day soon.

La Ciénaga is newly available on DVD from Home Vision Entertainment on a disk that includes Martel's award-winning 1995 short Rey muerto.

Aka The Swamp.



La Ciénaga

Facts and Figures

Run time: 103 mins

In Theaters: Thursday 12th April 2001

Distributed by: Cowboy Booking International

Reviews

Contactmusic.com: 4.5 / 5

Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
Fresh: 31 Rotten: 5

IMDB: 6.9 / 10

Cast & Crew

Director:

Producer:

Starring: as Tali, as Mecha, Martín Adjemián as Gregorio, Leonora Balcarce as Verónica, Silvia Baylé as Mercedes, as Momi

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