Temples of the Familiar


Notwithstanding the sweltering Argentinean heat and a herd of noisy children, teenagers, and half-wild dogs, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga is a veritable Chekhov tragicomedy of provincial life. Making a brilliant debut, Martel constructs her narrative from quotidian incidents, myriad comings and goings, and a cacophony of voices competing for attention.

The characters are almost all members of an extended middle-class family, strapped for cash and crowded into houses crumbling from the dampness. The film’s title (translated as The Swamp) refers literally to the terrain on which La Mandragora, the summer house that is the film’s central location, is built—and metaphorically, to the collective family psyche in which individual members are trapped. It’s also the name of the small town where Tali (Mercedes Moran), the most sympathetic adult in the film, lives with her husband and four young children. Tali’s alcoholic cousin, Mecha (Graciela Borges), presides over La Mandragora in a drunken stupor; when she is rushed to the hospital (she falls on her wine glass and nearly bleeds to death), Tali’s plan for a quiet summer is disrupted. Mecha and her husband are abusive drunks and their teenage sons are just as mean. Closer in temperament to Tali, their daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) is made miserable by the departure of her best friend, Isabel (Andrea Lopez), the family’s Indian servant, who silently suffers all their verbal abuse but balks at the sexual advances of Momi’s older brother, José (Juan Cruz Bordeu).

Martel dispenses with the niceties of exposition, throwing us into this morass of frustration and anger, and leaving us, like the characters, to figure out on our own who’s doing what to whom and who’s to be trusted or not. The characters may not always be clearly delineated, but the ambience is detailed and rich. La Ciénaga opens with the family lounging around La Mandragora’s brackish swimming pool. The handheld camera moves in, not on faces, but on bits of bodies (here a flabby middle-aged belly, there a young muscular shoulder), on thick blue glasses filled with wine and ice, on ancient plastic lawn chairs that look like animal skeletons as they’re dragged across the muddy patio. The scene is visceral to the point of suffocation, and ominous as well, thanks to an audio track dense with the sounds of cicadas, thunder, and sudden rain. But if the world of La Mandragora is disturbing in its hyperreality, the world outside is even stranger and more incomprehensible. The children frighten one another with stories of dogs revealed to be cat-eating African rats, and the entire province is mesmerized by reported sightings of the Virgin Mary atop a water tower.

While Mecha and Tali are the film’s most fleshed-out characters, the overall point of view is closer to that of Momi (and indeed, Martel has acknowledged the film is based on memories of her own family). In a debut feature that’s assured in every aspect, Martel’s direction of the younger members of her cast is particularly notable. When the kids are on the screen, La Ciénaga seems closer to documentary than fiction, as tumultuous, tender, and horrifying as real life caught on the fly.

Training Day, Antoine Fuqua’s propulsive, elegantly written police thriller, offers the unsettling spectacle of Denzel Washington, whose old-fashioned combination of decency and sexiness suggests the African American counterpart to Gregory Peck (in his To Kill a Mockingbird period), as an LAPD cop so evil he makes Harvey Keitel’s bad lieutenant look like even smaller potatoes than he was meant to be. Washington’s much decorated undercover narc ruthlessly murders drug dealers and shares their stashes with his posse and his white superior officers. Ethan Hawke is the bewildered rookie who nearly becomes his patsy. (The film’s real-life reference is the recent Ramparts police scandal.) Technically, Hawke is the hero and Washington the heavy, but the latter’s movie-star charisma rules from beginning to end. What’s so perturbing about Washington’s work here is that there’s nothing chameleon-like about it. He’s his usual direct, charming, handsome self, except that he also has a sadistic streak that, as it gradually surfaces, turns him from a mean tease into a complete monster. Actors always have more fun playing bad guys—and in Washington’s case, it must be particularly liberating not to bear the weight of being a black role model—but his performance is so organic and convincing that it seems like more than a lark. You have to admire the risk he takes in turning his star image upside down; nevertheless, it’s creepy to think that the hero you believed in for so many movies may be just as much a fiction as the villain.

Related article:
Leslie Camhi talks with La Ciénaga director Lucrecia Martel.