It goes without saying that a director should set their characters into motion. In doing so in her own way, Lucrecia Martel is interesting in this regard. Her full length debut film La Cienaga depicts the soft bodies of the old upper classes. One of them, Mecha (Graciela Borges) shakes as she pours her umpteeth glass. She drops the glass, filled with wine, causing her to cut herself.
Mecha’s daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) and their maid Isabel (Andrea Lopez) are sane human beings. They’re running around to Mecha’s rescue. However, it’s the other elders’ indifference to them that is fascinating, like they’ve drank too much to notice. It takes them, even her husband Gregorio (Martin Adjemian), a while to be of any help for her. Which reminds me of the other thing a director should do.
Martel’s film shows new human behaviours to their audience while presenting a cycle of stasis and action. She also shows how our bodies fail us. It’s a universal fear that she specifically sets in a pepper plantation in rural Northern Argentina. A place where the sun never shines. Where the threats of rain and flood are constant to the people who think they can hide.
The plantation, La Mandragora, is a great backdrop to depict the most injury prone family in film history. It doesn’t help that Mecha’s kids like Joaquin (Diego Baenas) constantly hunt for the ‘African dog rats’. Joining them is Mecha’s cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran) and her side of the family. Tali’s side of the family is happier yet struggling.
Eventually, Mecha and Tali discuss whether or not to go on a road trip to Bolivia. They plan to buy school supplies there since those are cheaper there. Of course, there are reasons to see this is as a bad idea. The main one is taking a convalescing middle-aged woman across borders. It also hurts Tali’s husband Rafael (Daniel Valenzuela) that their side of the family can’t afford local.
However, it is good to get away from the children. And anything that resembles movement is a good idea for Mecha. She has an underlying fear that by staying in the plantation, she’ll end up like her bedridden mother. Again, our bodies and minds fail us. But it’s scarier to see that happen to us exactly the same way it did for our parents.
The plot part that hits me the most is the first one that La Cienaga presents. One where Momi prays that Isabel stays in the house. Isabel’s position is more precarious since Mecha’s accusing her of stealing towels, or of another maid not answering the phone. There’s a racial aspect to Mecha’s suspicions. Isabel and the maids are Amerindian, and Mecha is thinking that they’re as useless as the latter is becoming.
La Cienaga has a lot of subtext, especially within Momi and Isabel’s complicated relationship. There’s a queer one, with Momi’s strong attachment to Isabel. They would share beds the way the other members of the family would share theirs. Their relationship is unlike that between Mecha and Isabel. It seems like a new relationship model between Argentines of both European and Amerindian descent.
Of course, there’s a problematic mistress and servant dynamic to Momi and Isabel. Sharing their bed isn’t unspoken, since Momi would always have to gesture her invitations to Isabel. As the film progresses, Momi would ask Isabel what’s she’s doing or, specifically, what she’s taking away. Mecha isn’t the only one who has to worry about turning into her own mother.
Prejudices don’t just go across racial lines in the movie. Each branch of the family would whisper one piece of gossip about the other. The film mostly shows Tali doing this. She casually reveals Mecha’s bad decisions or the latter being a victim of infidelity while her children listen. The family lives in fear of their future selves. However, they don’t make steps into changing from their old ways.
Sociopolitical aspects seep into the film, as it does with many Argentine films, but there are still personal touches. Like every well off family, they have connections in Buenos Aires. That connection is Mecha’s son Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu). He lives with and is sleeping with the family’s business partner Mercedes (Silvia Bayle) who is also sleeping with Gregorio.
There’s a night where Juan comes home with a battered face. A scene after that features him, a brother with one eye, another with scars on his face. There’s a playfulness here, an examination of the misadventures of the degenerate male. However, La Cienaga doesn’t play these characters off like it would in a comedy. The film cares for them as much as Mecha does.
Other writers have compared Martel’s work with Chekhov’s, who had the luck of getting his work on paper. The medium makes characters malleable enough for us to interpret them in whatever way. Martel’s job should be more difficult but she somehow adds layers to her characters. She even lets her characters and their curious obsessions surprise us.
Screening with her short film; Dead King including a talk from Columbian born filmmaker Lina Rodriguez at 6:30 PM this Friday Feb. 23rd at 6:30 PM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox here in downtown Toronto.