NYFF 2001: Swamp Things; Argentina's "La Cienaga" Emerges as Major Discovery
by Andy Bailey
(indieWIRE/ 10.04.01) -- Occupying the little-engine-that-could slot in the 39th annual New York Film Festival, Argentine upstart Lucrecia Martel's sweltering first feature "La Cienaga" gives some of the more established auteurs in this year's line-up a run for their reputations. Wielding such a palpable sense of place that you can't help but feel sucked in by the film's pneumatic allure, Martel's debut takes you everywhere and nowhere on its feverish journey into an extended middle-class family's torpid summer vacation on a moldering country estate in the sticks of sticky northwest Argentina.
Short on narrative thrust but strong on just about everything else, including its intoxicating opening sequence -- perhaps the most viscerally alive first five minutes you'll see on a screen this year -- "La Cienaga" earns its marks (and cuts, and bruises, and gaping wounds) as one of the festival's major discoveries. During a press conference last Friday, moderated by festival programmer Richard Pena, who mentioned that it took him and his colleagues "about fourteen seconds of discussion over whether we'd put it in the New York Film Festival," Martel spoke about her far-flung journey to get funded, the joys of working with legendary Argentine actress Graciela Borges, and her overall reluctance to describe the film's titular swamp as symbolic.
"In Argentine Spanish the word 'cienaga' doesn't really have the dark connotations that the English word 'swamp' has," Martel explained. "It's a very humid and watery place full of insects and animals that eat those insects -- actually it's a place full of life that's vibrant in a way. Yeah, it can be uncomfortable, but it's not really a horrible place filled with death." While the adult characters in the film, including family matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges) languish in an alcoholic stupor alongside a murky swimming pool -- or else in bed, arguing over the omnipresent television set -- the children run amok outside, shooting BB guns at cows stuck in the mud; eyes get poked out, knees get scraped, tots fall off ladders. In "The Lion King," they called this the circle of life.
"I think when you grow up in the provinces where there are guns around, and kids all over the place, there are a lot more accidents," Martel surmised, hinting at the film's autobiographical roots (the director came of age in a similar Northwest backwater). "I think the fragility of the body is one of the major themes of the movie."
In script form, "La Cienaga" garnered $135,000 from the Sundance Institute after having obtained a larger sum from the Argentine Film Institute, a government agency. "Sundance set up some meetings for us," Martel explained, "and I was able to meet a Spanish producer (José Maria Morales). Then we sold the television rights to Japan. A lot of this was the work of my producer, Lita Stantic, who's one of the most respected producers in Argentina. She has a great interest in developing young directors." Other production monies came from France and Switzerland, making the otherwise small, homegrown production into a truly international venture.
Before the Sundance prize, Martel had secured the participation of Borges, a veteran of more than 40 films who readily agreed to the script's rigorous working conditions. "I didn't write it with her in mind," said Martel. "But when I showed it to her she immediately showed enthusiasm for the role. For those who know her work, she usually plays characters from the upper middle class, very refined women. It was fun playing with the kind of iconic image she's known for, especially for an Argentine audience that expects a certain kind of film (from her)."
Mecha -- best described as a larger-than-life loudmouth lush in oversized Chanel sunglasses who wouldn't be out of place in an Almodovar film -- chews the scenery when the scenery isn't chewing her; she's maimed in the film's opening scene after she trips on a patio chair while inebriated, falling onto shards from her broken wine glass. Borges inhabits the character with decadent, drunken zeal. There's a sort of absurdity in her clumsiness that proves contagious to the other characters, including Mecha's near-catatonic alcoholic husband. It's astonishing that Martel succeeds in creating so much screwball energy out of an otherwise stolid group of adults. In their torpor, the adult characters in "La Cienaga" are as frenzied as its rampant children, lending the film its incessant, almost manic energy.
Following the press conference, Martel elaborated on the film's unique sound design, which comes alive in "La Cienaga's" defining opening moments and establishes the caustic tone that lingers throughout. "I worked on the concept of sound in the film even before I thought about the images," Martel explained. "It was very important to me that the opening scene didn't feel naturalistic in style. I wanted to make the sound more expressionistic than the images. Since the narrative doesn't develop in an ascending manner, I had to find a high note of tension that could be sustained throughout the film."
And so patio chairs drag across concrete, wine glasses clink and shatter, children shout into electric fans, adults bicker, dogs bark, cows moan, the television blares. This film may be about a swamp -- its scant plot often feels lost in its own miasmic gases -- but it never sits still, it never shuts up, and you couldn't ignore it if you tried.