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Chekhov in contemporary Argentina. Mecha and Gregorio are at their rundown country place near La Ciénaga with their teen children. It's hot. The adults drink constantly; Mecha cuts herself, engendering a trip to the hospital and a visit from her son José. A cousin, Tali, brings her children. The kids are on their own, sunbathing by the filthy pool, dancing in town, running in the hills with shotguns, driving cars without licenses. One of the teen girls loves Isabel, a family servant constantly accused of stealing. Mother and son, son and sisters, teen and Isabel are in each other's beds and bathrooms with a creepy intimacy. With no adults paying attention, who's at risk? Written by
La Ciénaga, directed by first-timer Lucrecia Martel, uses a seemingly uneventful series of episodes and an atmospheric sense of impending doom to make a statement about the decadence of the Argentine middle class. The decaying families are portrayed without much sympathy, showing them as racist, uncaring, and self-indulgent.
The screen veritably pulsates with life and ugliness. Every frame is filled with children and animals running in and out, dogs barking, everyone talking at the same time, music blaring, and the TV bellowing something about Virgin Mary sightings. It's almost as if the camera is eavesdropping on an intimate family gathering, making the viewer feel like an uninvited guest at a party.
The narrative (such as it is) is about two families and their children thrown together at the end of a stifling hot summer, and how everybody bears the marks of carelessness and inattention: scars, burns, bruises. Nothing works in this milieu; the pool is very dirty, one boy has lost one eye, another is afraid of stories about dog-rats, drinking is excessive and accidents result as a consequence. The mother (Mecha) is a drunk who just seems to be waiting for the end to face life in bed for 20 years like her own mother. She makes racist remarks directed toward her servant, yells at her own daughter Momi, (who seems to be infatuated with the servant), and makes vague plans to go to Bolivia to buy school supplies for the kids.
La Cienaga is not easy to watch. It is moody, sensual, atmospheric, almost unbearably intimate, with a constant level of anxiety and tension. You can feel the humidity building on your forehead. Danger is always near, and violence seems not just possible but probable. There is an unspoken longing for something, anything good to happen to relieve the emptiness of life. I was reminded of Chekhov and Dostoyevsky. It is almost Bunuelian in its feeling but, unlike Bunuel, it is not dark comedy, just dark.
The unspoken backdrop is the recent history of Argentina, an unending nightmare of political violence, social unrest, and fiscal disaster. Only the children give us any hope for the future. It is a compelling picture of class arrogance with an ending as moving as any I've seen. Strongly recommended but bring a lot patience and a de-humidifier.
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