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    La Cienaga

    Upper middle crass

    "La Cienaga" pokes holes in the Argentinian family with a tale of languor and contempt at the superheated edge of the jungle.


    Two families holed up for the summer near a town called "Swamp" (Cienaga) doesn't promise much as a subject, but that's exactly the point. In a corner of northwest Argentina at the edge of the jungle there's not too much to do aside from tipping the bottle too much and bitching about the local Indians. The matriarchs and cousins Mecha (Graciela Borges) and Tali (Mercedes Moran) talk about driving across the border to save a few pesos in Bolivia on school supplies for their kids, but they never go. Gregorio (Martin Adjemian) is as vain as his wife Mecha and usually as drunk; Tali's husband is mostly absent. When Mecha's adult son Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu) is summoned from Buenos Aires to pull his mother back to reality, he immediately sinks into lethargy as well. To boot he gets beat up after showing too much attention to family maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez) at a disco.

    Written and directed by: Lucrecia Martel.
    Cast: Martin Adjemian, Diego Baenas, Leonora Balcarce, Silvia Bayle, Sofia Bertolotto, Juan Cruz Bordeu, Graciela Borges, Noelia Bravo Herrera, Maria Micol Ellero, Andrea Lopez, Sebastian Montagna, Mercedes Moran, Daniel Valenzuela, Franco Veneranda, Fabio Villafane.
    Cinematography: Hugo Colace.
    In Spanish with English subtitles.
    New York Film Festival 2001

    All About Lily Chou-Chou
    Blue Wild Angel
    La Cienaga
    Fat Girl
    The Royal Tenenbaums
    Mulholland Drive
    Sobibor, October 14, 1943, 4 p.m.
    Waking Life
    Va Savoir
    Y Tu Mama Tambien
    Narrative non-narrative might be the best way to describe Lucrecia Martel's script. All the characters seem to spend the majority of their time lying on numerous large beds or looking in the mirror. Ever true to their redneck pedigree, these white-trash families never miss a chance to blame their darker-skinned Indian help for everything that goes wrong, from missing towels to no ice on hand. At least the red wine is abundant against stifling subtropical heat. Arguably the more together of the duo, Tali has produced two girls who could give the kids in "Sunday Bloody Sunday" a good run for their money. When they go into town, their repulsion/attraction to the local Indian boys isn't much different from U.S. Southern-belle behavior vis-a-vis local blacks.

    Lucrecia Martel's first feature film has been snapping up awards on the festival circuit. Her intense, in-your-face portrait of a dissolute middle class lacks the usual justifying criminal context. Martel simply holds up a mirror to Argentinean society, and the result is devastating. Instead of creating an allegory with archetypes, she shows characters that are all too real. When still, her camera is low and close as though we were right on top of the actors. Interspersed "Blair Witch"-type scenes shot in daylight with jiggly handheld camera follow the wake of the latest domestic disaster. Finally an inscrutable sub-theme of sightings of the Virgin Mary on a dilapidated rooftop water tank adds video to the visual mix.

    Martel appears to be much influenced by art photography and video. The combination documentary and critical images of suburbia by Diane Arbus and follower Bill Owens are of the same fabric as La Cienaga. Even Arbus's famous quote, "There are things which nobody would see unless I photographed them," applies. The TV video simultaneously distances and domesticates the action. Other moments that seem to draw on photography's ability to make the grotesque fascinating include close-ups of Tali's girls freakishly made up for a February Carnival party and the same two behind glass that Indian boys are striking with small water balloons.

    Martel has been called an Argentinean Chekhov, but her characters are much closer to the languor of Tennessee Williams. Her message is not an ironic one, though, and it would be too much to call the characters of "La Cienaga" tragic. Altman-esque pessimism reigns, and when a preventable tragedy caps the action you are sure that it won't change a thing. The opening is equally disquieting. Boys gawk at a cow inextricably stuck in a mud pit; eventually someone comes along to put the animal out of its misery. The analogy with society and country is unequivocal.

    If the most recent exports are a good guide, Argentinean "new generation" filmmakers seem to be moving beyond themes related to the military dictatorship period. Comedies such as "Nueve Reinas" (Nine Queens) are as inventive and intriguing as any around today. It doesn't hurt that Argentina has an incredible pool of acting talent to draw from, either. On the more serious side, as directors turn to social issues, they show a society on the edge of collapse, ready to be put out of its misery like the cow at the film's start.

    OCTOBER 12, 2001

    Reader comments on La Cienaga:

  • [no subject]   from sergio, Dec 19, 2005
  • Sergio is right   from hugo Pezzini, Mar 18, 2006

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