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With: Gabriela Borges, Martin Adjemian, Diego Baenas, Leonora Balcarce, Silvia Bayle, Sofia Bertolotto, Mercedes Moran
Written by: Lucrecia Martel
Directed by: Lucrecia Martel
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Spanish with English subtitles
Running Time: 103
Date: 03/19/2013

La Ciénaga (2001)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Holiday Hell

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

La Ciénaga is yet another challenging, maddening piece of cinema that makes us work just a little but leaves most Hollywood movies in its dust.

The characters who inhabit La Ciénaga seem to be alive. I received the impression that they lived before the film started and would continue to live after it was over, as if the film were nothing more than an incidental by-product of their existence, rather than the sum total.

As directed by Lucrecia Martel in her film debut, the film follows the members of two different families in Argentina during a summer stay in a crumbling vacation house. The title translates to "the swamp." The weather is always gray, but always unbearably hot. Most characters lie lethargically around, too hot and lazy to even move, while beat-up electric fans whir incessantly in every room.

The movie doesn't bother to formally introduce us to any characters and we barely -- if at all -- learn their names. The matriarch of the family seems to be Mecha (Graciela Borges). We're introduced to her during a pool party, where several unattractive people sit around a stagnant pool sipping some awful alcohol that looks like cheap red wine mixed with cherry Kool-Aid.

Drunk, Mecha picks up several glasses then swoons, smashing the glasses and cutting herself. No one seems to notice or care (not even Mecha) until the several children help her up and arrange to take her to the hospital.

The alcoholic Mecha constantly worries that her servant Isabel (Andrea Lopez) is stealing her towels. But the oldest daughter, Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), seems to be in love with Isabel, constantly trying to crawl in bed with her in the crippling heat.

An endless supply of kids runs around constantly. A group of young boys wander out into the swamp to shoot guns at a dead cow stuck in the mire. One of them, for some unexplained reason, is missing an eye. Another has a tooth growing out of the roof of his mouth. An older boy Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu) seems to have a flirty relationship with his sister (or is it his cousin?), and rolls around with her in the mud before sneaking up on her in the shower to wash his feet.

More than once I thought of the freak show parade in most of John Waters' films (like Pink Flamingos or Polyester). But La Ciénaga contains lovely little moments as well. Mecha's cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran) sits with her in her bedroom talking about a shopping trip to Bolivia. While they talk, more and more youngsters continue to enter the room, sprawling on the bed, combing each other's hair. It's actually a delightful, relaxed scene and it sneaks up on you. We learn that love actually does exist between the members of this messed-up family.

As it began, the film ends with another accident, and this time no one's around (except us) to witness it: whereas in the first scene, everyone was around and no one seemed to care.

With no story and very little to help define its characters, many viewers will find La Ciénaga baffling. But I found it a fascinating fly-on-the-wall experience, seeing the kind of ugly moments a family would hide from us had we been officially invited in. It's really a one of a kind film and a promising debut for Ms. Martel.

Home Vision released this film on DVD in 2005. It comes with Lucrecia Martel's short film Rey Muerto, a "director's statement," the original theatrical trailer, and liner notes by film professor, critic and cultural commentator B. Ruby Rich.

In 2014, the Criterion Collection released a Blu-ray edition, as well as a new DVD. (The Home Vision release is now out of print.) The Blu-ray does not include any of the extras from the first DVD, except the trailer. Capturing the heavy, sultry look of the film, the transfer is up to top-quality Criterion standards. New extras include a 19-minute video of Lucrecia Martel, which is not quite a traditional interview, as well as a 22-minute interview with Andres Di Tella, of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, talks about Martel's directing style. The liner notes are by cinema professor David Oubitia.

Since the release of La Ciénaga, Martel has gone on to become one of the finest international directors working today, and this debut is very much revisiting.

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