Stop the presses! I must report that I have just seen a film that could top my personal list of the worst movies of all time. The new contender is La Cienaga (The Swamp), a recent release from Argentina that is so godawful it makes Ed Wood's Plan 9 from Outer Space, the reputed worst film ever made, look like Grand Illusion by comparison. But that's just my opinion. Clearly other people have liked La Cienaga a lot. It is a multiple-award winner, garnering prizes at Sundance, Berlin, and elsewhere. So it's me against them, and maybe, against you. It is a poorly kept secret that critics fashion pithy raves in hopes of getting quoted by movie publicists. With that in mind, feel free to quote me verbatim: La Cienaga is a pretentious turd of a film that might be worth the price of admission just to witness what bold incompetence with financing can bring forth.
Let me get immediately to the stunning plotline, stunning in its literal sense. In the rainy, mountainous territory of northwest Argentina, several families lounge about in their vacation homes. Mecha (Graciela Borges) drinks heavily with her souse of a husband Gregorio (Martin Adjemian) and their sagging, middle-age acquaintances. The finca is a mess, the pool filthy and filled with leaves. When Mecha falls poolside and cuts herself badly, no one stirs to help. She's rescued by her two teen daughters and the family's stalwart Indian maid, Isabel (Andrea Lopez). Daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) is desperately attached to the laconic, stoic Isa and fears she will leave the family one day. Mecha slowly recovers in bed but worries that her wounds will leave scars. Her friends fret about her disaster of a home life but go about their own daily routine. Mecha's happy-go-lucky older son, José, shows up from Buenos Aires for a visit. There's suspicion of potential incest with one of his sisters, but he really gets into trouble when he encounters the sudden fury of Isabel's secret boyfriend, a local lad who pounds José to a pulp at a local fiesta.
Meanwhile a group of local children roam the mountainous back country, hunting and goofing off. They find a cow mired in mud and kill it. Mecha makes plans for a shopping trip into neighboring Bolivia, but the preparations don't seem to lead to anything. When Isabel tells Mecha she is resigning, Mecha berates her with racist insults. Momi is heartbroken when Isabel leaves. Amid the turmoil, a local news broadcast reports an appearance of the Virgin Mary in the vicinity.
Oh, and a tortoise wanders through a number of scenes.
First-time writer/director Lucrecia Martel has gone for a cinéma vérité narrative, a series of everyday events (and nonevents) that fill up the lives of her characters and give a naturalistic sense of this backwater community (the story is set in Salta, Martel's hometown). The acting, too, is natural enough, and there appears to be a lot of improvisation at play. The lush mountain scenery and the few glimpses of Argentine street life are intriguing. But these aspects keep you interested for maybe twenty minutes. After that, be warned: The going is rough. If Martel's point is that life has no point or at least no progress, she certainly scores effectively. The film quickly sets up the dysfunction of these privileged few, then makes the same point over and over. By the end of the film, nothing has changed. Just about any scene from the film's end could have been placed at the beginning with little loss to narrative clarity or effect.
I should have seen this disaster coming in the first ten minutes when one character says, "I've been here for two hours and nothing's happened." How prescient. By the end nothing happens, but the big surprise is it only takes an hour and a half to get there. That issue aside, the next most intriguing aspect of this film is why the Mercury/Absinthe people would book it -- because it is foreign, or from South America? Why not do a little digging? How about The Strategy of the Snail or La Gente de Universal, two neglected worthies from Colombia. Or what about Parallel Lives, the charming Brazilian comedy that sparkled at last season's Miami Film Festival? For that matter, how about any number of bright lights from the Hispanic, French Hispanic, Israeli, and gay and lesbian fests? It's not as if there isn't a wealth of good films that merit screening. Maybe it should be their turn.
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