Argentinian-born director Lucrecia Martel crafted her newly rereleased debut feature La Ciénaga (The Swamp) in 2001, receiving praise from critics and audience alike. The film does indeed stand as a testimony of her directorial talent and ability to let the story tell itself. La Ciénaga is a sober, quiet, unpretentious film which, just like its title, presents itself to the audience with no frills and no embellishments, but with a strong desire to represent life as it is, in a quite neorealist approach.
La Ciénaga tells the story of two middle class Argentinian families, whose lives are shown to be closely connected not just by blood but also by unrequited feelings and psychological turmoils: love and hate, sadness and happiness etc. Mecha (Graciela Borges) and her husband Gregorio (Martín Adjemián) are the middle aged parents of a bunch of unruly but sensitive teenagers.
The summer is hot and humid, their life is disillusioned and depressing, and both spend most of their time drinking themselves into a stupor. So much so that their kids are used to seeing them drunk, and, when Mecha falls over and injures herself with a broken wine glass, it’s her teen daughters who have to help her up and take her to the hospital.
They receive a visit from Mecha’s cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán), who lives nearby with her husband and her young children. Tali still has illusions of experiencing something different, illusions which take form in her desire to travel to Bolivia to go shopping for school items for the kids. Her husband discourages her, and in reality, everybody knows that nothing is going to change.
Just like summers are destined to be hot, damp and tedious, she is set to remain the housewife who looks after her kids, Mecha will undoubtably continue drinking on her return from hospital, whilst womaniser Gregorio cheats on her and their children play in the desolated, putrid pool, left to their own devices when it comes to dealing with emotions, relationships and secret desires.
Martel’s camera takes the audience right into the story from the very first sequence. It follows movements and expressions in a delicate, yet very ‘matter-of-fact’ manner which demands the viewer’s attention and compassion towards characters who are as real and as authentic as can be, from their physical appearance through to their unique mannerisms.
It’s because of this fact that the La Ciénaga is able to create “a vision of social malaise that feels paradoxically familiar and new”, as stated by the New York Times following its release. The protagonists are normal people trying to cope with the enormity of the situation they’re in, which envelops them like mud from the surrounding swamp.
But it’s not just depression and disillusionment that Martel wants to explore: through the exchanges, dialogues and behaviours, she also represents broader social issues like racism (which Mecha exhibits several times towards her Native American maid, Isabel), middle-class outlooks, sexual misunderstandings, the clash between generations, and even religious beliefs. The latter are presented particularly strongly throughout La Ciénaga in the form of a TV programme which is watched by the family, in which witnesses tell of appearances by the Virgin Mary.
Winner of the Alfred Bauer Award and nominated for the Golden Berlin Bear at the 2001 Berlin International Film Festival, La Ciénaga is a fine example of cinema which doesn’t require many words to tell its story, and which captivates and engages you with its beautiful photography and quiet, meaningful narrative.