Argentinian director Lucretia Martel said that when she was given a telescope at the age of 15, her faith in the Catholic Church fell away, and it wasn’t long before the telescope and a subsequent microscope led naturally to a camera. The idea of a camera being a microscope, examining some subjects living in some solution, plays out particularly nicely in Martel’s debut feature, La Ciénaga (2001), which The Criterion Collection is releasing on DVD and Blu-ray next week.
When the film opens, one gets the sense of being submerged (an idea Martel explores often and which she brings up in the interview included in the new Criterion edition). The air feels heavy. A group of adults walk slowly as they drag metal chairs loudly over the concrete tiles surrounding a pool filled with brackish water. The environment is uncomfortable to watch; these people, drunk and lethargic, are uncomfortable to be around. It doesn’t get much better when we shift to the inside of the home, which looks to be moldering away as the younger children lie sweaty in their disheveled beds in the middle of the day. Perhaps it gets worse when we move to the hillside and see a group of adolescent boys roaming with rifles, watching a cow drown in the muck.
Stagnation, drowning — applying these ideas and images onto a group of people is hardly unique. Where Martel shines, though, is in how well she pulls off these — and other — rather obvious metaphors. I cannot remember the last movie that made me this uncomfortable and tense from the opening minute. The potential for all things awful is as tangible and oppressive as the thick air, air that is alive with sounds of insects and distant gunshots.
The stagnant, drowning people we watch come from two families.
The first family, the one we see at the pool, is led by Greggorio (Martin Adejmian) and Mecha (Graciela Borges). Greggorio is a drunk, aging man who dyes his hair dark for Carnival. His presence is felt because he’s so absent. Mecha is the matriarch, also worried about how much time is already behind her, and threatening to simply lie down in her bed for the remainder of her days as her own mother did before finally dying some 15 or 20 years later. Greggorio and Mecha’s children are starting to get older, and, honestly, it looks like they might just lie down and pass the rest of their days in bed too.
In the nearby town, La Ciénaga (or, The Swamp), lives Mecha’s cousin, Tali (Mercedes Moran), whose own family is a bit younger, but Tali’s own sense of suffocation is well developed.
While La Ciénaga is an uncomfortably intimate picture that remains focused on a few days in the lives of these two families, teasing out the oppressive aspects of their relationships, the film is also a subtle exploration of Argentina’s troubled recent past and the lives of those children who are growing up in the aftermath, themes explored wonderfully in Argentinian author Sergio Chejfec’s The Planets (see our review here).
Argentina’s Dirty War is commonly said to have run from 1974 to 1983. Chejfec was born in 1956, Martel in 1966. Chilean author Alejandro Zambra was born in 1975 and runs through similar themes tracing the aftermath of Chile’s dictatorship under Pinochet. These three artists, developing their art in the aftermath of these troubles, cannot help but be influenced by the stifling atmosphere they understood from their youth. These are weighty topics, definitely adding to the burden carried by these two families.
Which is not meant to suggest that the individuals in La Ciénaga are pure victims of environment. They’re apathetic, they’re passive aggressive, they’re racist, and the children roam — or lie down — freely. For the most part, this is conveyed through subtle camera work, which is often a bit shaky but not ridiculously so, and sound design, which, for me, is where the film really excels. Indeed, when the film is over, and the credits have run, the blank screen remains with just sound for an additional minute.
It’s a confident debut, wonderfully executed, and shows promise that (from what I’ve heard, not having seen Martel’s subsequent features yet) has been affirmed.
The supplements to the Criterion edition are slim, but what we get is relevant and worthwhile.
First, we have a new interview with Martel that runs for just over 18 minutes. Produced by The Criterion Collection in 2014, it is not your typical interview. By using footage from her other films, including a lark she must have made when she first got her hands on a home video camera, the interview examines Martel’s influences and themes, including submersion, which I found fascinating. Interestingly, when being interviewed, Martel is not fully the subject of the screen. She sits slightly out-of-focus in the background, the focused foreground showing an arrangement of liquor bottles and an ash tray for her cigar. An interesting personality, for sure, and I enjoyed her insights into her craft.
Next, we have a more conventional interview with filmmaker, and cofounder of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, Andrés Di Tella about Martel, the history of Argentinian film, and La Ciénaga in particular. At almost 24 minutes, this is a nice feature that manages to touch on a number of topics while still giving great insight on each topic.
Last on the disc itself is the film’s trailer.
The disc also comes with a fold-out (accordion-style, thankfully, and not that obnoxious map-style we’ve had lately) insert with an essay by film scholar David Oubiña entitled “What’s Outside the Frame.” Oubiña opens his essay by remarking on the opening of the film, which, he says, Martel had to fight for since this kind of unconventional opening is almost the exact opposite of what any screen-writing course would advise. He goes on to argue that such flagrant offenses (“There are too many characters in La Ciénaga,” he writes) are what make the film so distinctive. I agree, and I found myself engaged and enlightened by Oubiña’s essay.