At first look, the cloud of gloom that envelops Lucrecia Martel's strangely affecting first feature, La Cienaga (The Swamp), seems to have no specific origin and no particular provocation. An alcoholic matriarch, Mecha (Graciela Borges), lolls beside a filthy swimming pool at a decrepit South American villa, sloshing glasses of iced wine in the torturous summer heat. Her burned-out philanderer of a husband, Gregorio (Martín Adjemián), gazes at his badly dyed hair in the bathroom mirror. Their neglected children -- Are there three of them? Four? It's hard to tell -- wander unhappily through the house and prowl the environs, suffering a series of accidents. Meanwhile, a second family, barely held together by Mecha's cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán), is packed cheek-by-jowl into a stifling little house in the city. Amorphous and ill-defined, they are no easier to sort out than the first group.
Only one thing seems sure. Everyone is afflicted by the same malaise, whatever it is. They're all wallowing in the same swamp. But how did they get there?
Martel, a largely self-taught writer/ director who is herself the product of a large, untidy family, doesn't offer any obvious clues to the puzzle -- at least none discernible to the average American audience. But anyone who takes the briefest glance at the violent history and troubled current state of her native country, Argentina, will see what she's up to. La Cienaga scarcely breathes a word about politics or economics, but the tragedy of Argentina lies just below the surface of its plotless progressions, cloaked in extended, elaborate metaphor.
What's not on the screen is just as important as what we see. In 1955, the reformist dictatorship of Juan Perón fell to a military uprising, and for the next 15 years the country was ruled by a series of unstable military and civilian governments. Widespread violence broke out in the early 1970s during Perón's post-exile second term, and Perón's widow and successor, Isabel, failed to solve the country's problems and was overthrown in 1976. The military junta that replaced her promptly undertook a reign of terror. In 1977, the Argentine Commission for Human Rights accused the regime of 2,300 murders, 10,000 politically motivated arrests, and 20,000 to 30,000 disappearances.
At the same time, a series of economic emergencies and agricultural disasters ruined the Argentine middle class and stole incentives from the poor. By 1983, the national inflation rate had reached 900 percent, but monetary reforms neither eased the pain nor made way for stable leadership. In 1994, Argentina wrote an entirely new constitution as its parade of ineffective leaders marched on. In 1996, President Menem was granted emergency powers to raise taxes without congressional approval. That same month, 10,000 inmates took part in violent prison riots across the country. In 1996, there was a general strike; in 1997, bloody protests against the government's economic policies. In 1998 and 1999, an Argentine judge ordered the arrests of former junta leaders who had sanctioned the abductions of hundreds of children between 1976 and 1983. Come 2002, who knows?
In short, the recent history of Argentina has been an unending nightmare of political violence, social unrest, and fiscal disaster, relieved by brief periods of tranquillity in which everyone got drunk and did the tango.
Seen in that unhappy light, the exhaustion and disillusionment that grip the characters of La Cienaga -- as well as their blurry relationships to each other and the seeming shapelessness of the film -- make a lot more sense. The violent carelessness of the grown-ups, who always seem to be smashing glassware or getting into fights, speaks of Argentina's chaos, and the endless bad luck suffered by the film's bickering, overlooked children -- here a broken tooth, there an appalling eye injury, next a mysterious fall from a ladder -- becomes a poignant reminder of the country's bloody loss of innocence. Throw in a little racism and a dash of incest, and the atmosphere of woe is complete.
For better or worse, the filmmaker says nothing directly political about the cruel fate suffered by her people, but the dark poetry of her allusions is powerful. Witness the unallayed fears of a little boy who worries that the neighborhood dog is really a huge "African rat" that eats his cats. Consider the much-heralded "appearance" of the Blessed Virgin Mary on a water tower in a poor neighborhood and the report of a teenager who goes to look for herself ("I didn't see anything"). In a land where 30,000 citizens simply vanish, can any vestige of grace survive?
We Americans have our own reasons to feel depressed right now, and La Cienaga, a fragile art-house item to begin with, may suffer even more at the box office once word of its darkness gets out. But this fascinating first feature deserves a long look nonetheless, especially by those willing to consider Argentina in her several lights. Oblique but potent, it's a film that will likely resonate with dispirited people everywhere. These days, that might include just about all of us.
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