Shades of Gray
Chris Wisniewski on Lucrecia Martel’s La Cienaga

What does it mean to call someone a Latin American filmmaker? Is the label simply biographical, or also analytical? Is it meaningfully descriptive, or does it impose an aesthetic, formal, or thematic commonality that doesn't actually exist?

These questions don’t get any easier to answer at the level of individual national cinemas. Lucrecia Martel, the director of La Cienaga (The Swamp), The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman, rejects the idea of a New Argentine Cinema. Martel acknowledges that she and her Argentinean contemporaries have emerged from a specific social, cultural, and political context—one defined largely by the military dictatorship that ruled the country in the Seventies and Eighties. But she does not see herself as part of a community of new Argentinean filmmakers, nor does she acknowledge a shared sensibility. Compare this to other, more easily definable film movements: whereas the term Cinema Novo refers to a distinctive filmic project, and the directors of the Nouvelle Vague, whatever their divergences, engaged in active dialogues with one another about their aesthetic and political aims, there is nothing precise beyond the citizenship of its filmmakers and their growing international profile to define New Argentine Cinema, and no easy way to group the internationally funded films this movement comprises.

This is not an idle concern, because the tendency to categorize films in national or pan-national terms can easily limit the way we watch or think about them. Martel, however, might be better understood in the context of international auteurist cinema than as a standard bearer for either New Argentine or Latin American Cinema. It may be more illuminating to talk about her alongside Apichatpong Weerasethakul (who shares her rigorous approach to sound design) or Claire Denis (who in her difficult, elliptical approach to narrative seems like something of a kindred spirit) than to group her with either a crowd pleaser like Fabian Bielinsky or an art-film darling like Lisandro Alonso, whose films disrupt categories of documentary and fiction in ways that Martel's strictly non-documentary narrative fiction films never attempt.

And yet, if there is such a thing as New Argentine Cinema—or Latin American Cinema—then Martel is inarguably one of its leading figures. Only three films into her career, she has twice screened films in competition at Cannes and once served on the festival's main competition jury; all of her movies have played at the New York Film Festival and received distribution in the United States; and an end of the decade poll by Cinema Tropical ranked La Cienaga, her debut feature, the best Latin American film of the aughts (The Headless Woman and The Holy Girl placed eighth and ninth, respectively). She possesses a rare and unsettling talent; her movies are at once confounding and, in their way, perfectly intelligible. Already, she has staked a claim as a major film artist with a small but astonishing oeuvre that demonstrates a preternatural command of the medium. Indeed, to revisit the opening minutes of La Cienaga is to witness the arrival of a director with her sensibility already fully formed, and it's exciting because she is both singular and at the same time one among many contemporary Latin American filmmakers who seem capable of redefining the seventh art in its second century, each in their own way.

La Cienaga opens on a shot of some trees. It's the sort of image that would normally serve as an establishing shot. But then there's a cut: the camera changes position slightly; it moves back and to the right. We now see the trees through a window from behind a row of red peppers resting on the sill. The cut defies our expectations about exactly how a filmmaker should establish a sense of place: After the first image, we might assume the action that follows will take place out in the forest, but instead, Martel moves the camera further indoors. The second shot disorients rather than clarifies. It's awkwardly framed, a bit unbalanced, and the small change in position barely justifies the cut in the first place. Yet there's an arresting beauty here, and a respectful confrontation with the viewer. As she does in all of her films, with these opening moves, Martel asks her audience to work, to infer spatial relationships that she refuses to spell out. She generally doesn't shoot establishing or transition shots, so beginning her first film as she does, with an image that could function solely to provide spatial information in someone else's movie, she's playfully—almost archly—informing us that context is everything, and that watching her films is an active process, not a passive one.

The first minutes of La Cienaga are quintessentially Martelian, a dense succession of terse and fragmentary images. A hand reaches for a bottle of wine, pours some sloppily into a glass, and then raises the glass into the air. A group of middle-aged men and women, shot so their sagging stomachs fill the frame in close up, drag beach chairs across a patio. An adolescent girl lies next to an Indian (Native American) woman in bed, gently speaking into the sleeve of her shirt. A boy runs amongst trees, carrying a rifle, as the camera follows him at a clip. Across shots, certain sounds persist. The dragging of the metal beach chairs across the concrete deck is audible inside the house; crickets chirp, thunder rumbles, and guns fire in the background; ice constantly clinks in glasses. Because of the preponderance of close-ups, many of which offer only a partial view of their subjects, offscreen sounds help to create a coherent sense of space. This is an integral aspect of Martel's filmmaking: she conceives of her scenes sonically, working, as she’s stated in an interview for Reverse Shot, on the premise that a fully immersive soundscape gives her the flexibility to put the camera anywhere. Her images don't shoulder the burden of telling the story, but as a result they often seem to possess a haphazard quality. They're difficult to parse, especially on first viewing.

Ambiguity should not be confused with obfuscation, though. While Martel leaves it to us to figure out who these people are and what their relationships are to one another, she puts us right in the middle of their lives, revealing their dysfunctions, vulnerabilities, and resentments with a deft narrative economy. In this brief prelude, we learn that Mecha (Graciela Borges) and her husband Gregorio (Martin Adjemian) are both raging alcoholics; that their adolescent daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) is devoted to their (also adolescent) Indian maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez) with a fervor that is daughterly, erotic, or both; and that Mecha has threatened to fire Isabel for stealing towels—though we never find out if she's guilty of the charge.

Martel writes her screenplays in layers—of sounds, images, impressions, and vignettes—confounding deterministic narrative cause-and-effect and avoiding easy psychologizing. Why does Mecha accuse Isabel of stealing the towels? Perhaps she's confused, having convinced herself in a drunken stupor that her maid is culpable for their disappearance. Maybe a latent—or not so latent—racism clouds her judgment (when she wanders through the house refusing to answer the ringing telephone, she complains, taking a typically racist posture, "These Indians never answer the phone."). She might resent the affection her daughter has for their maid, who may or may not have stepped in to the motherly role Mecha herself has abandoned in her haze of alcohol-fueled self-pity. Or she could be disturbed by Momi's vaguely sexual attachment to Isabel. Most likely, it's all of the above. Here and elsewhere, Martel's characters frequently act in ways that betray multiple, sometimes contradictory motivations and impulses. In The Holy Girl, Amalia (Maria Alcha) earnestly believes she has a calling to save the soul of the man who molests her, even though his "perverse" advances excite her. Vero (Maria Onetto), in The Headless Woman, feels culpable for the potential hit-and-run that begins the film, but she stands by passively as her husband and friends dispose of any evidence that an accident took place. Martel's films offer sweeping, systematic moral indictments of the social milieux they investigate, but they usually refrain from an overt condemnation of individual characters, whose failure lies in passivity and acquiescence rather than malevolence.

Like all of her movies to date, La Cienaga is set in the remote northern province of Salta where Martel grew up, and she drew on personal experiences in writing the screenplay. Martel takes a critical posture regarding her provincial home, and her three films together function as a study in social decay, a portrait of a society rotting from the inside. Her characters generally refuse to acknowledge, much less confront, their moral failures, instead retreating to the bourgeois complacency of their hermetic, (literally?) incestuous, and racially segregated communities. In La Cienaga, mise-en-scène continually evokes a sense of moral enervation—a cow trapped in a sea of mud struggles ineffectually to free itself, only to die and slowly decompose; the disgusting pool next to which Mecha and her family sun themselves (the titular "swamp"?) obviously hasn't been cleaned in years, festering like a scab. Were Martel a more conventional filmmaker, these images would be too obvious, but her elusive approach lends them a certain neutrality, as though they're accidental metaphors. Most riveting among these images is the unforgettable poolside shot that quickly follows Mecha's early, drunken stumble (the shot is also an example of the deep-focus photography Martel would abandon by the time she made The Headless Woman). Mecha falls to the ground, wineglasses shattering on the soundtrack, and lies across the patio bleeding, while five of her friends recline stoically, barely moving, zombie-like. Martel observes the scene from above in a wide-angle shot, her subjects paralyzed by their inebriation.

The accident sets the movie's narrative in motion and foreshadows the fall that ends the film—the most pointed repetition in a movie that is preoccupied with actions re-enacted. After Mecha returns home from the hospital, her cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran) brings her children from a nearby city to visit and enjoy the unswimmable pool. By the film's conclusion, Tali's youngest son, four year-old Luciano (Sebastian Monagnia) will fatally tumble from a ladder: Curious about the disembodied bark he hears from the other side of the wall separating his family's home from the neighbors' (crucially, this climactic event is incited by sound), he climbs up to see the "African rat" he expects to find on the other side, then slips to his death. As in The Headless Woman, an innocent child becomes collateral damage in a freak accident that can barely be attributed to inattention, much less to spiritual torpor. The meaning of Luci's death—if such events have any meaning—can't be deciphered from the evidence Martel provides. Though Mecha's fall foretells this climactic tragedy, it fails to explain it, even obscurely.

"History repeats itself," Tali warns on her first drive to Mecha's. She's talking about Gregorio's philandering, but she could just as easily be discussing any of the film's many repetitions and transpositions. The most prominent is Luci's accident, which is rehearsed multiple times (by Mecha as folly and later as play): at one point, as Tali tends to hanging plants, Luci lies on the patio in the same position he'll later die in; in another scene, a group of children surround him firing imaginary guns, squealing, “You're dead.” Elsewhere, Gregorio's son Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu) has repeated his father's history by taking Gregorio's former mistress as his own. And multiple characters, including Mecha herself, worry that she will end up like her mother, secluding herself in her bedroom for years as she slowly drinks herself to death. An hour into the film, Mecha watches a television advertisement for a minifridge capable of freezing eight trays of ice at once, and a few scenes later, Martel shows her putting an ice tray into the appliance. It's a gag, but the amusement quickly fades. Mecha spends much of the film wandering the house on a constant journey in search of ice for her drinks. Her now-easy access brings her one step closer to the fate she fears by giving her one less reason to get out of bed. In La Cienaga, nothing is predestined, but the film's characters make their own fates in the accumulation of small decisions.

La Cienaga ends, as it begins, on a shot of distant trees. Its elegant circularity suggests the vicious cycles of addiction, complacency, and social superiority that seem to doom the superficially privileged characters who populate the film. Throughout the movie, they watch news reports about an image of the Virgin Mary appearing on a water tower. But the redemption this miracle might represent is nothing more than white noise, a diversionary entertainment. Mecha and her children might occasionally pine for deliverance from an external source, but they lack the fortitude or the self-awareness to break the cycles they replicate. In La Cienaga, like The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman, Martel constructs a subtly devastating narrative firmly rooted in a specific sense of place—where history does, indeed, repeat itself, continually and hopelessly, and redemption is an impossibility.