A filthy swimming pool and a family that doesn't care about its potential prove spellbinding in its disturbing mundanity. Info
La Ciénaga (The Swamp) is a meandering Argentinian film that painstakingly documents a summer of decadent squalor in the life of a middle-class family that has given up on its future. The opening scene shows the parents splayed out in swimming clothes, as they chill out by a filthy pool filled with leaves and milky water. They drink wine that looks as red and sweet as juice, and mark time dragging their chairs along the ground to follow the shade. The camera swoons along with their bored stumbling. When Mecha (Graciela Borges), the matriarch of the family, gets up to return some wine glasses to the kitchen, she slips and cuts herself on the glass shards. "Right above my cleavage, what a disaster," she quips, after she is rushed to the hospital by her children (the other adults can't be bothered). She doesn't lift a finger after that, and her children fear she, like her own mother before her, will take to bed and never return.
Many scenes that follow swing similarly close to the edge of disaster, and the teenagers barely—and complacently—avoid life-altering trauma. Children whip machetes at a pond to catch fish, most likely to emerge from the hunt with fewer fingers. Later, the possibility or history of incest is heavily implied when twentysomething eldest brother Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu) sticks his leg into the shower of his teenage sister, where she's cleaning off from their mud wrestling. These and so many other moments often linger on children experimenting, with nearly catastrophic results, in a world devoid of active role models.
The movie is basically plotless, with a few key moments were tension is finally released. Jose is beaten after hitting on the young maid of the family at a carnival, Mecha gives up on her deadbeat husband, and school supplies that are mentioned over and over again are finally bought. Finally, there is a sickening accident that stems directly from lack of attention. To weave all of this together, the audience has to pay far more attention to these people's lives than they do. In an interview about another of director Lucrecia Martel movies, 2009's The Headless Woman, she explains, "If you want movies to give you everything, this movie fails. You have to be there. I need you. I don't want to show you. I want to really share something. It's not easy. When you have a conversation, and you really want to understand the other person, it takes time and effort." Like her later movies, The Swamp, Martel's directorial debut, is the kind of movie that rewards patience and an open mind. Its complex and ambiguous paralleling of class and race bias, and social commentary on a difficult portion of Argentine economic history, deserve the scrutiny Martel demands. —Reid Kurkerewicz