Aside from Brazil and Mexico, Argentina has had perhaps the most well developed Latin American base for popular cinema, and it’s been home to a number of respected filmmakers for many years now. The late Fabien Bielinsky from Buenos Aires made a nice, twisty con man film in the form of 2000’s “Nine Queens,” and Juan José Campanella took home an Oscar for “The Secret In Their Eyes.” Pablo Trapero has broken out with “Carancho” and “White Elephant.” But Perhaps one of the most underappreciated filmmakers from this region is Lucrecia Martel.
She made a splash with her gentle, disturbing debut, “La Cienaga,” or as it translates in English, “The Swamp.” An actual swamp does figure in the movie’s plot in the early goings, but the title has a metaphorical resonance as well: “La Cienaga” is a slow-moving, largely plotless mood piece that drops in on one particularly endless summer in Salta and its disillusioned inhabitants. Scenes are edited so that Martel drops us right in the middle of a situation where we are totally unfamiliar with the context and the result feels like a movie that doesn’t end conclusively as much as it just simply stops. The summer in “La Cienaga” really is without end, and it’s easy to feel like the characters will persist in staying adrift in their malaise long after the film ends and the credits have rolled.
The good folks at The Criterion Collection have recently given “La Cienaga” a well-deserved release and although the extras on the disc aren’t exactly what you’d call plentiful, there’s still much to enjoy here. Chief among the highlights is an in-depth interview with film scholar Andres di Tella, who is well versed in the history of both Argentinean cinema and Martel’s own career (she has gone on to direct two more features since her debut: “The Holy Girl” and “The Headless Woman”). It’s fascinating stuff, and not just for the insight di Tella gives us into the “documentary” approach taken by young Argentinean filmmakers who were dissatisfied with what they saw to be unnecessarily theatrical portrayals of life in their homeland.
“La Cienega,” an imperfect, raggedy film that nevertheless casts a haunting spell, is thick with ineffable languor. There is a sense of profound idleness at the story’s core and the narrative often reflects the quality of a fevered memory. There are scenes of deep passion, scenes of stark magic realism (the cow in the swamp comes to mind), and also, the now-infamous “dragging of the chairs” scene (indeed, Martel’s film is notable particularly for its canny employment of off-screen sound). It’s crazy to imagine that a film this intimate once boasted a shooting script of nearly 205 pages. It’s also telling to note that Martel’s primary inspiration from the story came from the Spanish “siesta,” a time of the day when adults take a break from their working schedule in order to drink, eat a good meal, and nap. Martel was also fascinated by the children, many of whom fell by the wayside of their parent’s ennui without a clue what to make of themselves on these long, sticky summer days. Di Tella has plenty to say about “La Cienaga” and its lasting power, and his eloquent, instinctive understanding of Martel’s unforgettable film makes one want to dig in the crates of Argentinean cinema and dig up some gems.
“La Cienega” is now available on DVD and Blu-Ray through the Criterion Collection. Watch the interview with Di Tella and the film’s “Three Reasons” featurette below.