Shot in Salta, director Lucrecia Martel’s hometown, nestled in theArgentinian high plains, her debut feature THE SWAMP is a cinematic homage to the place and milieu where she grows up, it is intimate, clammy, misty and torpidity-ridden, an internalized sociological drama that definitely puts her name on the cinematic map.
Two households’ quotidian lives are interlocked together, Mecha (Borges) is the matriarch of a petit bourgeois family, husband Gregorio (Adjemián), two teenage daughters Verónica (Balcarce) and Momi (Bertolotto) and a younger son Joaquín (Baenas) who has lost his right eye and pending for an operation. Most of them vegetate around in their decrepit countryside estate under the influence of the humid and sweltering weather,a sanguineous accident brings back her eldest son José (Bordeu) for a sojourn and the visits fromher working-classcousin Tali (Morán), who is living in the town with her husband Rafael (Valenzuela) and a brood of 4 (or 5?) younger kids, a prominent feature sees Martel unfolds the story in medias res and leaves no explanatory pointers, therefore it is completely left to viewers to piece together the make-ups of the two families (and other backstories) through its meandering and characteristically rowdy narrative, a task this reviewer might not able to cinch in the end.
Kit her camera with a slithering but sensibly unobtrusive mobility, Martel unwaveringly levels it to her close-knit characters with clinical observation, often from unorthodox angles, no establishing shots, seldom focuses on the exterior locations or utilizes long shots, the camera is restive but the characters are entrapped and enervated inside their pokey space, mostly on their beds, lazing around, doing nothing, their stalemate is contagious, a metaphor blandly illustrated by a buffalo bogged down helplessly inside a swamp.
Day-to-day triviality is given a microscopic examination under Martel’s perceptive, score-free orchestration, through which she deftly lays out the chasm between classes and races (Mecha vs. her Amerindian servants), latent lesbianism (Momi’s obsession with the young maid Isabel, played by a stolid Andrea López), the connubial strain and sheer contempt, religious sideswipe (through faux-newsreel of Virgin Mary’s alleged manifestation) and the quasi-incestuous horseplay between José and Véronica, and pertaining to Martel’s female slant, it is him in the state of dishabille for viewers to gaze upon, all integrated organically into this understated but telling drama that excoriates Argentina’s pandemic ennui, to the point when its detriment start to tell in the accidental (but presaged) tragedy which brings down the final curtain, it hits less like a wake-up call than the designed vagaries of kismet, a very fine stepping stone from a robust film-maker making a good fist of counterpoising the inexplicable with the pedestrian.
companion pieces: Alice Rohrwacher’s THE WONDERS (2014, 7.1/10); Luis Puenzo’s THE OFFICIAL STORY (1985, 7.6/10); Carlos Sorin’s INTIMATE STORIES (2002, 7.2/10).