Screened as part of NZIFF 2001
The sultry atmosphere of a hot and sticky summer in tropical northwestern Argentina is overpowering. At the aptly named rural back-water of La Mandragora a sense of chaotic lethargy rules. A soporific alcoholic fog hangs in the air as adults loiter on deckchairs beside a fetid pool, while drowsy children attempting to escape the heat sprawl randomly about the estate. Heavy rain has turned the surrounding rainforest into a decaying wetland, a hostile landscape where disaster strikes without warning.
The Swamp draws us into this decadent community through the lives of two families, united by blood and misfortune. Mecha, the matriarch of the estate, maintains a constant drunken stupor beside the pool, rousing herself only to berate her morose Indian servant. Her home is overrun with listless teenage children, while her indifferent husband dodges responsibility and studies his receding hairline. Mecha’s cousin Tali arrives to beat the sweltering heat of the nearby city. In tow are her four pre-teen children, whose misadventures cause her constant worry, and her hunt-crazy husband, who avoids the rest of the clan by taking his trigger-happy children into the morass to shoot giant swamp rats. — MM
Though as usual, Berlin’s Competition seemed overloaded with Hollywood’s fall A-List, there was at least one major revelation this year: Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s remarkable début, The Swamp (La Ciénaga). Set in remote corner of northwestern Argentina, the film begins as a kind of sub-tropical Dogma 95 piece, with lots of off-kilter compositions and jarring edits; but there are powerful undercurrents running beneath the seemingly tranquil, somewhat languid country-house atmosphere. Mecha (the great Graciela Borges) and her family are coming to the end of their summer holiday when, due to a series of off-screen incidents, her cousin Tali and her family are forced to come and live with them. Tensions begin to surface between and within families, and a sense of impending tragedy descends.
Far from the usual urban or small-town landscapes of Argentine cinema, The Swamp evokes a recurring Latin American theme: the sense that the battle between ‘civilization’ and the natural world – most typically represented by the jungle – has been lost, and the time has now come for nature to take its revenge. The harsh sunlight and lush, fetid vegetation can do little to hide the heart of darkness that presides over this unusually affecting film. — Richard Peña, Film Comment, 5-6/01