“Marshland” (La Isla Minima) had its U.S. Premier at the Miami Dade College’s Miami International Film Festival on March 12, 2015 – ISA: Film Factory Entertainment, U.S. Distribution: Outsider Pictures
Tight-sealed secrets begin to come undone in a ramshackle Spanish small town when a gruesome discovery brings a pair of outsiders to investigate in Alberto Rodríguez’ enigmatic thriller “Marshland” (La Isla Minima). Set in the 1980s post-Franco era, the mysterious events carry deep-rooted fears and an
ever-present sense of mistrust associated with the fact that the “democratic state” is still something new.
Brutal repression and corruption were the norm for many decades here, and to think it all has changed so fast is more an illusion than anything anyone
really believes. This murky divide between the new Spain that exists in theory and the darkness that lies underneath corroding society is encompassed in
a film that deliberately opens many cans of worms but doesn’t focus on tying all the lose ends, is in that vagueness that Rodriguez achieves brilliance.
Removed from their original posts in the city due to undisclosed circumstances, two homicide detectives are entrusted with the mission of finding two
missing teenage girls in the wetlands of Rio Guadalquivir in southern Spain. For Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), the youngest and more idealistic of the two, this
assignment feels like a punishment. He plays by the rules and does his job with an unflinching sense of duty. Pedro has definitely more at stake than his
partner, Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), who is outspoken about not wishing to become a hero. While both may have unflattering baggage, Juan’s past quickly
reveals itself to be one helmed by ruthless violence. Polarizing ideologies an all, the odd duo must reach a middle ground in order to successfully find
the girls, or those who might have hurt them.
The well-known good cop/bad cop dynamic comes into play when Juan and Pedro try to get information from the frightened locals. On the surface Juan’s
approach is much more relaxed and goes along with the idiosyncrasies of this remote place. He speaks calmly and even appears sympathetic to everyone’s
concerns. This is a man with experience, even if it was forged by questionable practices during the military dictatorship. Gutierrez marvelously imbues his
character with unnerving ambiguity as if every decision he makes is somewhere in between a genuine intention to solve the case and a self-serving tactic to
take advantage of the situation. Honest Pedro abides by opposite principles and comes off as an insensitive snub at first in the eyes of the townspeople.
His family back home is a constant reminder that he needs to remain focused and get this done fast. Contrasting with Gutierrez’ seemingly nonchalant
performance, Arevalo exudes trustworthiness still untainted by cynicism. Both thespians give “Marshland” a set of balanced perspectives needed to take on
what will be thrown at them.
Guiding us through a tapestry of deceit with every twist, Rodriguez reveals small glimpses of what could be the truth in every scene. Insignificant pieces
of new information that slowly build a puzzle far more complex than expected. Following several visits to the missing girls’ parents, their classmates, and
other people who might have seen something, the two detectives are pointed to Quini (Jesús Castro), the town’s Casanova. The blue-eyed young man is known as “El Guapo” or
“The Handsome One,” and has an arrogant attitude that makes him a prime suspect in the investigation. But when the girl’s bodies are found raped, tortured,
and mutilated, Juan and Pedro realize that these murders are just the tip of the iceberg in an intricate criminal network fueled by hopelessness.
Supporting the director’s piercing vision of his homeland at a crucial and transformative time is Alex Catalán‘s exquisite cinematography, which matches the caliber of any American studio production. Especially stunning is the opening credit sequence that highlights the otherworldly landscapes of the region adding to the story’s allure. By focusing on the vastness and isolation that mark this rice-producing part of the country, the film allows
for the horrendous to hide in plain sight and become all the more intriguing.
Once the lifeless victims appear, the protagonists’ quest turns into a manhunt to track down whoever is behind it before he or she kills again, but the
motivations are as difficult to pinpoint as the perpetrators. Poverty is at the center of most vices that afflict this community. People here – particularly
young girls – want to escape the lack of opportunities and see any job prospects in the city as a magical chance for a new life. Those who abducted and
murdered the sisters preyed on that desire and their naïve hopes. Underscoring the central conflict are other subtle indicators that the reason behind
these events is dubious. There are farm workers on strike asking for better wages from the local tycoon who indiscriminately profits from the land, and an
overall atmosphere of desperation permeates most households.
Under such strenuous financial pressures it’s not surprising that people are willing to venture into illegal activities, but with every new uncovered clue
the detectives have to shift their attention from drug trafficking, to what could be some sort of snuff photography, to the possibility of the girls’
families being involved. It’s a tricky plot to wrap one’s head around. Eventually – and elevating the tension to even greater heights – Juan’s turbulent
history is presented to Pedro by an avid journalist, but by now a supportive relationship has developed between the two partners. Instinctively Pedro refuses to
believe the Juan he knows and the one from his past are the same person, but caution is his best ally.
Even with the countless subplots and red herrings that construct it, “Marshland” never loses sight of its core subject that resides within Pedro and Juan’s
shaky bond. One represents the romanticized idea of justice that should reign over a nation reborn, while the other works as a reminder that the malevolent
practices that savagely oppressed them never perished.
Arevalo and Goya Award-winner Gutierrez are superb in every turn of this maze-like mystery. They manage to encapsulate the complexities of two opposing
visions of Spain in their performances. Their rapport is so effective on screen that at times Arevalo‘s Pedro takes on the violent qualities of his fellow
detective, and the lines between the two dramatically blur.
Certainty and unquestionable answers aren’t included in “Marshland,” and that could be problematic for the spectator that looks for closure, but by
forfeiting the notion that everything must be resolved, Rodriguez crafts a much more enthralling film. He distills the troubles of modern Spain into a
classically arranged thriller, and through that familiar premise the filmmaker manages to create so much more. One small town and a handful of characters
express more about the country’s societal division than a larger scale story could. “Marshland” is also a technically immaculate production on all fronts
from the costume design to its chilling musical score. It feels like a major motion picture while retaining its art house appeal. With a film like this, it would
seem like Alberto Rodriguez is ready for Hollywood, but let’s hope he continues to make works as thought provoking as this, because “Marshland” is
definitely an extraordinary, career-defining achievement.
Follow Carlos Aguilar on Twitter @Carlos_Film and on Instagram @carlosfilm