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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.
The previous comment - a scathing review - reads as an effective
degradation of Martel's "La Ciénaga" to a wanna-be artsy movie that
forgot to include a message to convey or even a story to tell. First of
all: this is far from being the truth. Second: nonetheless most publics
will probably take that impression away from seeing "La Ciénaga" if
they do not know beforehand what to expect. That is neither the fault
of the audience nor that of Lucrecia Martel's excellent movie.
Like other excellent directors from around the world, for instance her compatriot Daniel Burman recounting stories from Buenos Aires' Jewish community - Lucrecia Martel has (in my opinion wisely) decided that she will be at her best when telling about the world she knows best: the particular social setting of the Northwest Argentinean provincial capital Salta. A beautiful city, in a province ruled by a populist strongman, with mixed population, urban middle class and a upper crust of provincial landowner aristocracy, that is resistantly moving into a post-feudal age. The pace of life is slow - and comes to a near standstill during the long summer, where people of means escape into summer villages with a slightly preferable micro-climate.
Lucrecia Martel's movie has a "documentary" air about it - but it can only appear fake if one is angry at having paid eight bucks to see a film one does not understand because its appeal is entirely "local".
Now, even if you do not have a first hand experience of Argentinean society, let alone that particular subset that the one of Salta is and neither understand Spanish in its Argentinean version or even more the dialect of the Northwest (not only "ll" and "y" but also "rr"'s are pronounced "sh" as in Washington) you may enjoy the movie if you know the little I indicated above. And believe me: Salta is like that! Departing from this, you may in any case enjoy the excellent photography that perfectly fits and reverberates the pace of slouching decadence, and rejoice in the sometimes not so subtle symbolism of the dysfunctional and untimely nature of the beings populating the movie. The actors do an outstanding job at portraying characters with all the traits you could expect to encounter in Salta's summer mountain escapes. You can take my word for it: these people actually exist!
Is this artsy? While the location selected is one that stands for a niche in a niche market of current cinematography - Martel's choice is highly commendable: for it is this courageous choice that enables here to tell stories that she unlike any other can bring to the screen and apply to them all the skills of the craft she and her team have mastered. If you accept that you will enjoy a true gem of contemporary cinema. If you reject her choice, then at least waste a moment of your time that you had set out to complain about those ridiculously artsy movie directors and consider why Woody Allen may have decided to make one NYC movie after the other. And how much the Coen Brothers' works profit from their choice of more than peculiar regional settings.
My recommendation: take the time, open your mind, suppress the expectations and watch "La Ciénaga". Remember: if you don't like it, it's not your fault - but neither does it have to be Lucrecia Martel's.
Lucrecia Martel, the talented director of "La Cienaga", creates a dark
picture with this film that takes place in the northern part of
Argentina that borders Bolivia. Having seen "La nina santa" prior to
watching this movie, there is a sort of connection between the two, as
the director explores the darker side of human beings, which seems to
"La Cienaga" is a film that mirrored the times when it was made. The last part of the 21th century was devastating for Argentina as most people were affected by the rapid changes in the economy that befell the land. As the film starts, we suffer from disorientation. We are taken to Mecha's house in the country where a group of people are seen sitting around the swimming pool. No one says anything to one another; it's as though the oppressing heat has numbed everyone. The only thing left to do is to drink to oblivion.
Mecha appears to be inebriated when she tripped and fell. The wine glass cuts her in the chest. Blood is seen all over the place. Then, as though by magic, we are taken to meet Tali and her family, who appear to live in town. There is a sharp contrast between the two households. Where Mecha's house is run down, it still shows signs of a richer past. Tali's home, on the other hand, is a much humbler place.
Ms. Martel makes a subtle comment on what she shows us. There are a lot of things that are wrong in Mecha's house, like the lesbianism shown between one of her daughters and the maid. Incest is also hinted when Jose, the older son, who has come from Buenos Aires to see his mother after her accident, shows a sick interest in his beautiful sister. He enters the bathroom while she is taking a shower. At the same time, we are shown on the television set, an incident where people are attesting to seeing the Virgin Mary in a water tank on the roof of a house.
The director imbues the film in symbolism, which seems to be hard for viewers to follow. The story is deeper than what the images present for our viewing. That is why this enigmatic film did not reach a wide audience. It's a shame because Lucrecia Martel's film has a hypnotic way to get us involved.
Graciela Borges, an Argentine film star in her own right, plays Mecha, a woman of the moneyed society who appears to have seen better days. Ms. Borges underplays her character, achieving a great appearance. Mercedes Moran, who played Helena in "La nina santa", is seen as Lita, Mecha's cousin, Lita shows a lot of common sense. She also has a lot of problems, but she is much grounded than her cousin that is decaying in the old country estate. The ensemble cast is also good.
While "La Cienaga" is a disturbing work. Lucrecia Martel wrote and directed with great style. It's worth a look of fans of the Argentine cinema because it shows one of the most original talents in a film that dares to go where others don't.
The adult characters in "La Ciénaga" trudge through a hot and sticky summer
and sedate themselves with red wine on ice. It's hot and everyone is
miserable. No one is having sex, few are eating much, everyone is
bickering, and the servants bear the brunt of their mistress's frustrations.
If you want plot and adventure or a love story with a happy ending this film
isn't for you....but if you want to see REAL characters coping (or not
coping) with life you will never forget "La Ciénaga". Like in Canadian
literature, the landscape is presented as a character in the film.
Something to be endured. It's a film that looks at man's attempt to
'control' their environment and whether it makes any difference at all. One
cousin lays in bed in a drunken stupor and lets things just 'happen' the
other cousin nervously attempts to keep her home neat, gardening, ensuring
she's a 'good' mother, but she stops for a few seconds to listen to music
one day....with disastrous consequences.
I hope you get a chance to see it.
Lurid colors cover a visual stink that permeates La Cienaga and turns
all interaction sinister around the edges. The camera work was queasy
and the cuts were brutal--sometimes fatal
I loved it. La Cienaga sticks
in the memory like the urban legends the children tell to scare each
other. The story is an almost voyeuristic tour of the families of two
sisters, Tali and Mecha, one in the city, one in the swamp. We meet
Mecha, the rich swamp-dwelling sister, by her filthy swimming pool
surrounded by other zombie-esquire party-goers, all half passed out in
pool chairs from the combined effect of alcohol and the rainforest
heat. All of her bored kids are scarred, beat-up, scratchedone is
missing an eye. Armed with hunting rifles, the swamp is their main
source of entertainmentexcept for awkward Momi, who spends most of her
time clinging to Isabella ("Isa"), the native Argentinean house servant
in Mecha's crumbling estate.
Tali's family, living in the city, seems a little more sane, a little more whole, but her kids are smack in the middle of terrifying stages of growing up. Her two hyper-gendered daughters on the verge of puberty wear enough woman's make-up to look like kiddie-porn stars or circus clowns. When they are not being chased by little boys with water balloons, they are taunting their little brother with stories of the African rat-dog.
Some of the only music in the film follows Isa, the native; all else is the constant rumble of thunder, the ice tinkling in the Mecha's drink, and the silence of sullen frustration. Every scene is dangerous in its way, every volatile character was so full of desires gone bad, and all beauty was rotten underneath. Director Lucrecia Martel has created a refreshingly unromantic film in the romantic location of the Argentinean rainforest that leaves you with images as sticky as the heat.
La Cienaga means "the bog" in Spanish and it seems to symbolize the kind of
emotional place where the dysfunctional families in the film exist. People
are closely tied to each other mainly by their inability to come out of
bog." The many disturbing, and even somewhat confusing images and dialogue,
succeed well in conveying the oppression, ills, and limitations that plague
the lives of the characters. It is a very important film to come out of
Argentina. Having grown up in that country and being acquainted with its
present social environment, I find this particular portrayal of family
problems to be amazingly symbolic of the malaise affecting Argentine
today. In this regard, the absence of any obvious political or ideological
reference makes the film even more interesting.
excerpt, more at my location - La Cienaga, or The Swamp, is the debut
film from Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. Originally released in
2001, the film announced the arrival of a unique new voice within
international cinema. Finally granted a DVD release in the UK, it shows
that the director of The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman had emerged
with her distinctive and uncompromising vision of cinema already fully
Beneath the surface banality of La Cienaga lies a resonant and troubling picture, the work of a filmmaker with a considered and singular artistic vision. Even if Martel's particular vision is likely to repel as many as it attracts, her film possesses a lingering, haunting power. Not especially enjoyable, but undeniably affecting.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Lucrecia Martel's "La Cienega" is an utterly boring look at a
petit-bourgeois family that is so devoid of life, you wonder why they
don't all just jump into a pool of quicksand and drown. There's no life
in any of the scenes or characters, nothing but mundanity. The children
have examples of sadism in them, when they shoot a cow stuck in mud;
they are found roaming the forest doing nothing in particular.
The beginning of the film finds the matriarch boozing it up at the pool with a bunch of equally lethargic friends. She slips and cuts her chest, and that is the major plot point, that and sitting in bed, driving in old jalopy cars, or doing nothing at all. A lot of wine drinking completes the tediously long scenes.
The family lives on some estate somewhere in South America, where Indians are insulted. The Indians are not much better, going to parties to brawl or drink or play pool or hack up fish in the waters by a dam. You'll have a hard time getting to the end since it drags along.
The children are selfish, spoiled brats. There's no "brilliance" or luminosity in this film at all. The extras include a film by the director Lucrecia Martel, where she boasts about her film. Also some film by the pretentious windbags of the "New Argentine Cinema" is found. A small booklet by another pretentious intellectual, who raves about how great Lucrecia Martel's "La Cienega", is also stuck with the DVD.
This is a thoroughly average film despite what the reviews might claim about it.
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
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.
Maybe you have to be Argentinian to really appreciate this film. In the stultifying heat of a hot, humid summer, a rich (though decaying) family sit around drinking, playing with guns, exhibiting casual racism and watching television reports of the appearance of the Virgin Mary. No-one does anything useful and very little in the way of plot occurs; indeed, even when things do happen, the film refuses to treat them as plot (for example, a late scene, threatening tragedy, is never followed up). It's a pretty powerful metaphor for national decline, and if you strain, you can detect faint hints of black humour, but even so, 'La Cienaga' is pretty devoid of conventional entertainment. The acting convinces, so does the dialogue; but there's not that much to keep you watching.
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