Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel's La Ciénaga is an aggressively depressing
art movie clearly intended to have social significance beyond its immediate subject matter. Most
viewers will have little motivation to figure out what it all means while suffering through the
plotless slice-of-life on display. Basically an unflinching look at a miasma of aimlesslessness
among the middle class, this is a hundred minutes of bourgeois nightmare: little bits of sordid
irresponsibility and human neglect. The translation of the title is The Swamp, and it's
more than appropriate. Well acted and directed, La Ciénaga does everything except
entertain. It's not mean-spirited, but the despair factor is extremely high.
A hardworking city family visits an indolent country family during vacations. Living
in a rather nice house near the Bolivian border, the wealthier adults are constantly drunk while
their kids run wild in the house, out in the woods, and in their filthy uncleaned swimming pool.
The city mother (Mercedes Morán) has her troubles but actually seems to be looking out for
her children, while the country mother (Graciela Borges) lives in a stupor with a glass of wine
never more than an arm's reach away. Neither
she nor her vain, hung-over husband pay the slightest attention to the kids, who are always
engaged in dangerous activities and live with serious wounds that go unattended. The servants are
abused and accused of petty thefts, while the rules have broken down so severely that cousins take
showers together and one sensitive teenaged daughter openly pursues a crush on the maid. The
begging for unnecessary disaster on a daily basis - the film starts with the country mother falling
while carrying an armload of wine glasses, and seriously cutting herself.
Too many of us come from small towns and have met 'wild' country kids that aren't at all the
virtuous innocents presented in normal movies. The pack of undisciplined cousins in La Ciénaga
are basically "nice" yet indulge in activities that will make a responsible parent's hair stand
on end. Boys barely out of kindergarten are 'hunting' in the woods with loaded shotguns and risking
blowing each other to bits. Everyone 'camps out' sleeping in the same rooms while handsome male
cousins think nothing of drifting into the bathroom while a female cousin is bathing. Everybody is
at risk simply by swimming in a pool that has to be a major health risk.
Nobody is in charge,
particularly not the adults. Father refuses to lift a finger or think about anything but the color
of his hair; when his wife is at risk from bleeding to death, his solution is to tell his
underage, unlicensed daugher to drive her to the doctor. Mother spends a lot of time in bed with
her own son but banishes dad to the back room. She openly treats the mostly Indio servants as
racial degenerates. Mom talks about her kids in the abstract, between sips of wine. One of them has
apparently been living for some time with one eye missing from a shooting accident, yet steps to
mend his disfigured face are still in the planning stages. The kids range from cluelessly unaware
(the sweet daughter in love with the maid) to knowingly perverse to openly degenerate: The one-eyed
kid echoes his parent's prejudices by accusing the Indios of raping the family pets and threatening
to wipe them out with his shotgun.
Just about the only relief from any of this comes from the hardworking city father, who disapproves
of his kids spending a week at the ranch. He's the one who finally acts to buy the family school
supplies, and he's patiently on task to see that his cute youngest son's dental anomaly is properly
treated. He's an oasis in a film dedicated to the depiction of banal bourgeois decadence.
Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel paints a vivid picture of a particularly nasty situation that may hit
a solid nerve with Latin American audiences. It's certainly helped find her some recognition on
the festival circuit. But the meaning behind her appalling family portrait will elude all viewers
execept those predisposed to misanthropic world-views. The fate of a steer mired in a mudpit
is far too symbolic, and the final image of a forgotten child is all too conveniently cruel.
In my more adventurous movie viewing youth I caught an obscure Argentinian film called
La Muralla Verde, a thematic updating of the "Selva" thread in South American literature, about
men who wander into the vast forests and jungles, invariably to be swallowed up by them. The death of a child
is central to that film as well. Perhaps La Ciénaga is Lucrecia Martel's reworking of the
Selva theme, about affluent modern Argentinians not killed but instead transformed by the savagery of the wild.
Making a film for a particular cognoscenti is no crime, yet La Ciénaga isn't going to
linger as much more than an unpleasant experience. For the majority it will play like a perverse
Yours, Mine and Ours set in Hell. It's slow torture, but an honest slow torture.
Perhaps in another year it will click and I'll be recommending it as a masterpiece. Maybe it's
the unrecognized beginning of a new genre movement.
Home Vision's DVD of La Ciénaga is a sparkling enhanced transfer of a carefully shot,
good looking movie. The beauty of rural Argentina makes for a sharp contrast with the disturbing
drama, yet the director avoids visuals that are simply decorative.
A glance around the internet seems to peg La Ciénaga as one of those films that earns
critical kudos but isn't particularly inspirational. The curious will be interested in seeing
an earlier Martel short film, Rey Muerto included on the disc. It's a savage piece of
domestic cruelty seemingly inspired by the raw end of Latin American literature.
There's also a vague Director's Statement from Ms. Martel (a text extra) and an original theatrical
trailer. B. Ruby Rich's informed insert essay does everything for La Ciénaga except
give us a good reason to want to see it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
La Ciénaga rates:
Movie: Excellent as art, but with a low watchability quotient
Supplements: Rey Muerto, Lucrecia Martel's award-winning short film, Director's
Statement, trailer, Liner notes by film professor, critic and cultural commentator B. Ruby Rich
of The New York Times and The Village Voice.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: January 30, 2004
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson