La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel, 2001
La Ciénaga is a bleak and perplexing piece of filmmaking about two sets of adults, two sets of kids, and a lot of laziness, racism, alcoholism and backstabbing in between. The upper class adults have few redeeming qualities and rely on their children and maid for menial tasks, yet they treat the children with suspicion and the maids with outright scorn and accusations of theft.
The movie begins with a number of adults on the upper end of middle age, all lounging near a filthy pool, drinking a stark red concoction that makes them more expressionless as they get more inebriated. The scrape of their pool chairs is grating, as they move the metal into a position that makes them more comfortable, but they are immune to the jarring sound. They are virtually zombies, just letting the day pass by them. A thunderstorm is on the horizon, yet they still remain motionless. Suddenly, Mecha, the matriarch of the host family, stumbles with a glass in her hand, and lacerates her chest and breasts. The underage children are responsible for transporting Mecha to the doctor because nobody else is sober enough to drive.
Meanwhile, the children explore the tropical areas with gun in hand, looking to have a little fun. They encounter a cow that is stuck in the mud, obviously suffering. At first pass, they consider killing it to put it out of its mercy. They decide against it the first time, and on a later visitation when the cow has not improved, they end his existence. Animals and references to animals are constants in the film. One child relates a story that was told to her about dogs that ate cats, but when the dog was cut apart to see if the cats were inside, they discovered an African rat. Even in ordinary scenes around the house, the sight of wildlife is constant, from having a dog in the frame to backing it bark in the background. We even see a random turtle crawl across the frame in a later, brief scene. The point is clear, that we are supposed to compare these miserable individuals who merely exist, behavior and sometimes the misfortune of animals.
Meanwhile, someone in the city has witnessed an image of the Virgin Mary on a water tower. There is continual news coverage about this wonder, with people describing what she saw or what friends of theirs had seen, but few people on camera having actually seen the Virgin. One of those interviewed on camera says that the Virgin’s appearance implies that hard times are coming, foreshadowing some events that will transpire to the family later. These sequences recall another famous cinematic Virgin Mary appearance in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which is ultimately dismissed as little more than media frenzy. The same is true here, but it is a mechanism to advance and close the story.
The only real energy comes from the children. They are the only ones that have normal human urges. For example, there is one scene where the two young women ask a boy to try on a shirt so they can see how it would look on someone else. It is obvious from their expressions and how they watch him change clothes that they simply want to see his bare chest. They participate in dance outings, and even if one of these results in a fight between two boys, including the one who changed in the store, they are an active and agile bunch. Towards the end, the children play collectively in the water amid an explosion of water probably from some broken water source. It violently sprays water into the stream, and they emerge from it with smiles on their faces. When the children are out, they are the opposite of stagnation. When they are at home, they are mostly bored, pensive, and tired, not so different than their parents who never leave the house.
With Mecha recovering from her lacerations, she is bed-ridden and miserable. She sees an advertisement for a mini-fridge, and later we see that she has the fridge, which allows for easier consumption of her mind-numbing drinks. At one point she sees her husband sleeping and mutters, “what a pig you turned out to be” with complete disdain. He has no real defense, as he is as helpless and lifeless as her, and is in a constant trance-like state. She later asks him to move into another room and leave her alone. By this point, they are a marriage of convenience, with only their laziness and alcoholism in common. What she despises in him, she could easily despise in herself.
Given their lack of admirable qualities, they project the worst habits on the Indians who serve them. These people, including the maid, are of a lower class, but they are portrayed as having a better work ethic and a stronger sense of self. Yet the upper class Argentines call them idiots, rag on them for eating bad fish and for treating animals poorly. The daughter is caught between her flawed mother and the Indians. When her friends discard some muddy fish saying that only Indians will eat it, she reclaims it and assumedly eats it later. She also tries to comfort the housekeeper after being lambasted for her race. She represents progression and compassion, given the circumstances she’ll encounter, could later turn into her mother.
A tragedy occurs at the very end, one that probably could have been avoided and I will not go into it here. Punctuating the bleakness of the film and combining the primary and subplot is another visitation to the Virgin Mary site, hoping to see something or get a message. She sees nothing and questions its validity. Even though the movie starts on a pessimistic note, it ends much darker.
Film Rating: 7/10
Lucrecia Martel, Seven Notes on Cinema – This feature gets us inside the creative mind of Martel and uses La Ciénaga and some of her other work in order to show her methods and philosophy towards film. She shares seven aspects of cinema that she employs in order to contrast a realistic and unrealistic vision. For La Ciénaga, the keys are sound and immersion. She uses grating sounds, like the animals and the pool chairs for instance. As for immersion, she uses steadicam and shoots close to the actor’s perspectives. Sometimes the camera is in so close that it feels like it is within another character. She also shares that she is not Catholic, whereas many in her town are, and that is probably why the Virgin Mary was used as a plot device.
Andres de Tellas – Tellas is a Writer, Director, and Buenos Aires International Festival of Cinema Co-Founder. He has a wealth of knowledge about Argentinian cinema, and I found his insights into their cinematic culture fascinating since I know virtually nothing about their cinema. The films are often based on politics due to the series of 20th century dictatorships. A notable film after they had freedom of expression was The Official Story (1985), which gained some world renown. What followed was mostly message movies, and the following generation (including Martel) went against that type and created a New Wave of Argentinian cinema. While the cinema is not as overtly political, it has to be read with the political backgrounds in mind. After all, the elder actors of La Ciénaga were repressed under the dictatorships. Some, like Graciela Borges, participated in the prior Argentinian New Wave before the political turmoil. La Ciénagac can be read as a straight family drama, or as the actions of people who have been repressed.
Martel works in the spirit of Jorge Luis Borges, who says that nationality comes naturally and exists in your expression. However she may try to avoid it, her Argentinian upbringing is ever present in her cinema. She is aware of filmmaking history, especially Argentine, and possibly she was making a reference to Fellini, or maybe just using Catholicism as a theme of false hope for people who had been repressed.
Criterion Rating: 7/10