La Ciénaga

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These are hard times for an Amsterdam-based film buff like me. With the socially charged and inexplicable recent evictions of Amsterdam’s Slangenpand and Maagdenhuis, the city centre has also quickly lost two nice venues for interesting and unusual film screenings. Let’s just hope this will never happen to the alternative Filmhuis Cavia, which, in order to chase this year’s first summer vibes, I recently visited to see a remarkable Argentinean movie.

Never heard of Cavia before? I don’t blame you. Of all the cinemas connected to the Cineville platform, Cavia is the most under-the-radar. Then again, it’s definitely worth a visit. Don’t be put off by the all too sweaty fitness club located on the ground floor of the building, though. Just make your way to the first floor and discover a small film theatre that’s intriguing, offbeat and unique. Now that I think about it, these adjectives also perfectly apply to the displayed Argentinean gem La Ciénaga (2001). Some five years ago, this was even voted the best Latin American film of the twenty-first century so far by a group of American film connoisseurs, thereby beating heavyweights like Amores Perros and Cidade de Deus.

Director Lucrecia Martel’s first feature-length film La Ciénaga is quite a miracle indeed. This film doesn’t just want to tell a story, nor simply follow a few protagonists. Instead, La Ciénaga wants to depict a mood. A muggy and languid mood, to be precise. A mood established as much by the tropical Argentinean weather as by the local people’s apathy. The film introduces two interlinked families, each consisting of a lot of children. It quickly becomes apparent, however, that the numerous family members aren’t really living ‘together’ anymore. Rather, they all live ‘next to’ each other in a chaotic but stagnated environment.

Consider, for instance, ‘mater familias’ Mecha and her family. Mecha physically hurts herself in the beginning of the film. Her blood loss gets compensated by a dizzying consumption of ice-cold red wine, a drinking habit she shares with the other adults. Her house is a mess. Family members constantly assign tasks and ask mundane questions to each other, but no one ever really responds. People just stay in bed most of the time. The overall atmosphere is as sweaty as the aforementioned fitness club.

Together with some strikingly allegorical scenes, Martel uses this brooding backdrop to show how people have grown tired of each other. During the film, we catch glimpses of the perverse logics behind some of the family relationships: racism, incest and moral decay. As if that isn’t already impressive enough, the director also manages to compose a dense soundscape out of ringing telephones, kids’ screaming voices and barking dogs, leaving the spectator as dazed and enervated as the movie characters themselves.

Finally, Martel showcases a fascinating visual style in this suggestive, yet self-assured masterpiece. La Ciénaga is shot in a loose and slippery way, which only adds up to this family portrait’s ambiguity. The oft-recurring floating movements of the camera are reminiscent of those of that dirty, annoying fly that seemingly always bothers you during your summer holidays. But you’re simply too idle to use that flyswatter. Instead, you just pour yourself another glass of ice-cold red wine. Cheers!

By Vincent Baptist

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