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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
An interesting account of sporadic childhood memories brought to the screen but there is little-more than tense atmosphere and an uneven uncanny aura.
How accurate La Ciénaga is when it comes to Argentinian life is something that you feel only a select number of people could vouch for. The world in which La Ciénaga, or 'The Swamp' in English, is set comes across as quite bizarre but relatively simple; rather routine but dare I say slightly backward at the same time. Despite the rural setting and the feeling of openness such a rural setting of rolling hills and vast countryside may carry with it, The Swamp feels cramped and claustrophobic with little space to move and few incidences in which you have a space to yourself. Indeed, someone may be in the shower and someone else will run in, needing to clean their muddy foot in the shower water. On other occasions, the mother when in her bedroom will sit upright and bellow at others to get out. Its this invasion of privacy and bogged down, cramped conditions that get across the greater moments of atmosphere in The Swamp even if the film is a little hit and miss overall.
I read that the director, Lucrecia Martel, made the film based on some pretty true to life experiences in their own home and has set the film in their home area of the Salta Province in Argentina and it shows. You do get the feeling the film is a very personal project; the sort of film that can only exist through personal experience and knowledge of what certain things were like in a certain environment. In this regard, Martel comes across as a competent and very personalised filmmaker who is more interested in delivering things how they were rather than how people might want them to be.
The approach shows for the best part of the runtime. The film is slow and brooding, boggy in its approach and bleached out in the lazy sun when it isn't enclosed during a rain break and everyone must huddle indoors. It doesn't look at story as much as it adopts the approach of 'what might happen if this was the scenario'. If what Martel says about her childhood is true then it would seem they've captured the feel and atmosphere perfectly.
But I suppose it's a criticism that Martel gets across this feeling without ever actually giving us something else to cling onto. It's all well and good establishing what it may have been like living in the conditions but apart from an effective juxtaposition of rural claustrophobia and sporadic weather, there isn't really much else to shout about. I don't think the film ever gets going out of second gear and I suppose I was looking for what it was like living at these times and in these conditions. Unfortunately, Martel grounds this film in the present day and that takes away some of the retrospective approach. This cuts the characters off from reality or 'the real world' meaning it could only have been made by a certain someone whose experienced it but it can take place anywhere and at any time. I found this a little disappointing because I wanted more from what it was like to live at this 'time' in these conditions but what I got was just the 'conditions' half of the deal.
The film sees two families living in an Argenitnian province and struggling with one another more than anything else. I suppose the film centres on Mecha (Borges), a fifty-something mother who drinks, insults and accuses maids and generally does not much else apart from visit her cousin Tali (Morán) and family in a nearby town. Mecha's family is calm and quite passive, something the film really wants to get across in the early exchanges and its a comparison that works well once they arrive at the cousin's house in the slightly busier urban setting of the town. Here, it is things as basic as quickening the editing and having everybody move around a little faster than usual that gets across the new sensation.
The film relies on tiny, real life encounters for both its antagonism and story lines. Mecha's drinking acts as a back-burning threat more than anything but I don't think we ever get the feeling she could erupt into anything more than the odd rant. Adding to the intimate and enclosed surroundings is a fair amount of sexual tension between certain characters, a boy changes his shirt in a public shop in front of watching girls and later on an incidence occurs when a girl puts lotion on her body in front of a watching male who lies topless on a bed in the sun drenched arena. This twinned with the fact everyone's in swimwear for most of the time gives off an, if anything, eerie feel to the film. What's also quite alarming are the scenes in which young children carry shotguns around in the woodland; initially these are used to good effect: we hear gunshots but assume it to be thunder and then some rain falls but what's actually happening is something a little less innocent.
I don't think The Swamp was a bad film but it was particularly uneven. I like the feel and the look of the film and the study of Mecha being this ill and cut off woman to the point young kids are running around with heavy artillery is interesting. The sexual tension and the ideas for antagonism and what-have-you are there but none of them are developed to any great length although that might be the point of the film: that stuff exists, stuff happens but never usually in the order or how you'd like it to transpire.
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