Sunday, September 20, 2015
#743: La Cienaga
La Ciénaga is a well-crafted melodrama in the grand tradition of Central and South American cinema (and television). Martel's abilities as a filmmaker can often conceal this classification, and its the strongest moments in the movie - most notably the surreal and oddly disturbing opening sequence - that have brought the film to the Collection. But ultimately, I don't know that it is able to overcome this DNA, which has been baked into the acting, backstories of the characters, and ultimately the tragic and overbearing ending.
This is disappointing when you consider this is the first not just Argentinian film but South American film in the Collection - a massive hole in a 700+ film catalog. With Africa entering through the Scorsese boxset, that leaves just Antartica as the missing continent (Happy Feet?), but the absence of more South American film at Criterion points to a lack of high-profile directors from even the more established filmmaking communities (how many American filmgoers can name a South American movie other than City of God?).
Martel herself made her debut in this film, though you wouldn't know it from her sure hand behind the camera. There were many moments here that reminded me of directors with maturity and confident style like Pedro Costa, Buñuel, and Lynne Ramsay, but that South American brand lack of subtlety prevented the movie from fully coming together for me. I don't think this is objectively a bad thing, I think I just haven't gotten the hang of it. The film is dreary and rough going for a lot of its running time, and though it runs just 100 minutes it feels twice as long, simply because Martel takes her time getting from place to place and isn't especially interested in making sure you're coming with her to the next stop.
One thing I should note before I make it seem like I've totally written the movie off: this probably has a much different impact on people from Argentina. There's so much detail and dwelling on the small things that its surreal specificity must speak to people who are in the know. It can be very odd to watch a movie like this that is so specific to its very foreign locale, it feels like visiting an alternate universe. It's hard to remember in the US sometimes that more of the world looks like this portrait of Argentina than anything I've experienced living in four of the biggest cities here. Regardless of how I feel about the execution of any story, it's always one of film's strengths to provide this window into another world. I hope to see more South American films in the future both for this reason and for the simple fact that ignoring an entire continent's worth of output means you are certainly missing out on a lot of good films.