Lucrecia Martel’s debut Film La Cienega (also known as The Swamp) begins with an invasion of sights and sounds. As the opening credits commence so do the call of cuckoos, the faint hums of cicadas, and distant thunder. The film’s loose plot is guided by the palpable sounds, which create a foreboding atmosphere. The film takes place in the northwestern part of Argentina in a town called Salta, near the border of Bolivia and follows the life of a middle-class extended family living in a decrepit mansion. Most of the adults in the film are lackadaisical and unperturbed by the faraway concept of ambition. In stark contrast, the children of the film are boisterous and booming with energy for exploration, fending for themselves, carrying rifles and shooting at livestock in the rainforest. The older youth explore their burgeoning adolescent sexuality while caring for their alcoholic parents. Normally, living in a tropical climate would seem idyllic, but in La Cienega we see and hear the decay that surrounds this makeshift family.
The opening scene starts off from a lower perspective— like that of a young child, peering into the taut, tan, wrinkled & dehydrated bodies of a group of lethargic adults lounging by a filthy pool. They drag & scrape metal lounge chairs. Then the camera zooms out to Mecha (Graciela Borges) the matriarch of the household in the mountains, as wine is poured and ice clinks against glass, her movements are slow and onerous, she slips and falls on to the pavement, the wine glasses strike her chest. The shattering sound and the tumbling of the glass, alert the children. Immediately they get up from their beds. While Mecha’s partner Gregario (Martin Adjemian) a more severe alcoholic, casually tells Mecha to get up, unaware that she is bleeding. Their extreme lethargy is a monster that consumes the adults in the film.
The ever-present sound of thunder creates an atmosphere of imminent disaster, of monstrosity and chaos. Rarely, does Martel gift us with the calm of silence—instead you’re suffocated by people and by nature. The tangible sounds reveal the chaos of life itself, the uproar of fights at home, the sounds of quarreling and whispering. The pervasiveness of sounds lingers and becomes almost irritating—the lack of silence the lack of rest, sounds start to suffocate the characters in the film.
In contrast to the movement of sounds there is stillness in the condensed mise-en-scene, in the amount of characters that fill the screen and create the narrative. Throughout the film, there is uncertainty and confusion as to whose children are whose—between Mecha and her “cousin” Tali, the relationship ties are murky. Tali is another mother that lives in La Cienega, who is slightly more active than Mecha yet oblivious to some of the adventures of her children, while her partner Rafael is attentive and caring but rarely around.
All the characters act like another prop in the already full setting, this creates a sense of proximity to life. The children sweaty and exhausted from just existing, all lie together in the same beds sharing this packed space together, never allowing any individual to have time or space for themselves. There is a sense of inertia and claustrophobia. After Mecha’s accident, she takes refuge on her bed, rarely getting up to move about. The only ambition she seems to have is to go to Bolivia with Tali to escape the swamp. There is the subtle talk of going to see the apparitions of the Virgin Mary, and how this could solve their problems yet Tali and Mecha’s plans never come to fruition.
After finishing the film you’re left wondering what exactly the point of all this was. There was so much to retain—Martel truly conveys the energy and inertia of life, of these contradictions that come with life: ambition and motivations, secrets, desires released and repressed, curiosity, uncertainty, doubt. It is a beautiful film that truly captures the cracks that people often don’t want to admit about life.
La Cienega played at Lincoln Hall Film Society, see showtimes here.