La Cienaga (The Swamp) – Lucretia Martel (2001 Argentina) Mercedes Mona; Graciela Borges
A world that sucks you in….
The opening sequence of La Cienaga (LC) intercuts wide shots comprising images of trees and mountains with big close ups of people at a social gathering, on a terrace re-arranging their chairs. The most expressive feature of the sequence is the metallic screeching of the base of the chairs as they’re dragged across the concrete. The sound of the screams of trapped souls. In the movie there are constant reminders that this is a colonised land: the alienated images of landscape the ‘Indians’ hidden in the recesses of the family. In the world of the family called up Lucretia Martel (LM) no one screams, but there is the feeling that there are screams buried beneath the surface of the picture.
A swamp features in LC, a place in the local forest visited by the children, mostly boys with guns, a swamp which swallows up whole creatures such as cows, trapping them in the contradiction that the more they struggle to extricate themselves, the more surely they are sucked into the mire. Swamp is dense mud saturated water which might appear solid but is liquid; and the family situation observed by LM shares these characteristics. Once it envelopes you you drown in it..
In LC the families that LM creates as the subjects of her film are presented as spectacle. LM’s film is not soap opera or melodrama, it is family as spectacle. LM’s directorial strength is her understanding that through spectacle we see things with greater clarity than we ever could through the conventions and machinations of narrative that characterises the soap form. Spectacle requires that we look at what is set before our gaze without a narrative interpretative schema. The viewer is a subject who negotiates meaning, not an object of manipulation. Instead of being driven by strong emotive concatenations LC comprises of weak linkages between sequences which are organised around the key centres of the filmic concern: place, body and terrain/environment
LC is a dense movie which LM has endows with a painterly quality. The interior spaces which comprise it are half lit dark and airless filled with the intimacy of bodies and visceral prejudices. They are also expressed as female; places where the feminine psyche is the dominant force. The situational tensions within the spectacle depict a society that is as divided as any arab culture into territorial gender enclaves. The interiors painted by Martel revolve around the matriarchs and their particular concerns and discourses. A central discourse of one of the matriarchs is her running commentary of racist statements about ‘the Indians’ , their untrustworthyness, their otherness. Yet the ‘Indians’ are folded into the family life as servants sharing the space and the beds. Martel describes in these interiors a spectacle of inertia that holds the whole assemblage together. The people are trapped in these interiors and their attempts to escape (to take a trip to Bolivia) come to nothing. The intimacy which is attractive as a solace to the flesh is not balanced by any mental or creative stimuli. There is a rotting of mind which permits degeneration of sensibility and is seen in an entropic response to social consciousness. The consequence is an alcohol fed numbness. What looks as if it is alive is dead.
The interiors in the film are balanced by two other locations: (besides a dance hall sequence which is more an extension of the family houses) the forest and the environment. LM’s forest is peopled by small boys with guns. It is never entirely clear what they are doing: are they hunting or just learning to pose with guns? Perhaps LM is drawing a picture of the macho Argentinean male culture? The film cuts periodically to the natural environment which contains the human relationships. LM intercuts the human spectacle with long shots of the mountains, distant shots of the forests. They are filmed to look like calendar photographs and are remote detached from the social matrix. The natural world is a place far removed from the interstices of family. These are people alienated in some core manner from the world in which they are located, both its geography and its history. They know not from whence they come.
The spectacle is not only played out in space but also on the bodies of the families which bleed break and endure insult. Injuries such as the one sustained by the matriarch at the start of the film don’t have narrative importance. They have importance as circuits of intensity, centres around which the world temporarily rearranges organises and conducts itself. The issues are not how or why something has happened but the extent to which shifts occur in relocations of the focusing of the spectacle.
The final sequence of LC sees the young son of one of the matriarchs playing in the walled patio garden. A ladder has been left against the high wall dividing off their property from their neighbours. Behind this wall we have heard throughout the film the barking of a large dog which causes terror in the little boy. In the silence of the patio he looks at the ladder approaches it and climbs up the rungs. Almost at the top he loses control slips and falls back to the ground. We do not see him land or know what injury he has sustained. We know that the circuits and centres of relationships will amplify and shift but not substantially change. LM has made a film that paints a picture of the society she knows.