Marshland (La isla mínima, 2014)

Masrshland first published by Little White Lies

Marshland (aka La isla mínima) opens with spectacular high-angle aerials of the littoral spaces around the Guadalquivir River. Livestock are reduced to moving dots, birds fly across the screen between heaven and earth, and the colourful landscapes below, shot from a god’s eye view, take on the appearance of the capillaries, cataracts and cortices of a living organism. This beautiful, mysterious imagery, drawn from the photography of Hector Garrido, reveals a strange borderland where water is in constant, symbiotic negotiation with more solid ground.

It is an apt setting for Alberto Rodríguez’s film, a ‘Southern noir’ that unfolds in the shifting political landscapes of a Spain struggling to emerge from the shadow of Franco. In the Andalusia of 1980, the wetlands themselves have become the contested territory of change, with paddyfield labourers striking for better pay and working conditions, and heroin dealers navigating the river system for the community’s black economy. Against this backdrop, a pair of homicide detectives show up from out of town to investigate the disappearance of two teenaged sisters. If hard-living, moribund Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), with his shadowy reputation for petty corruption and worse, is very much a figure of the past, then the younger, more cleancut Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) – an idealist and democrat who is also soon to be a father – definitely represents the future.

Yet when the girls’ mutilated corpses turn up in the canal and evidence of serial murders emerges dating several years back, the two unlikely partners discover, in working together, that they have more in common than either would like to admit – even as they find themselves in a place still haunted by the ghosts (and graffiti) of fascism, where youthful hopes for a better life are all too easily exploited and abused.

Not unlike Koldo Serra with The Backwoods (2006), Jorge Sánchez-Cabezudo in The Night of the Sunflowers (2006), Juan José Campanella with The Secret in their Eyes (2009) or Juan Carlos Medina in Painless (2012), here director/co-writer Rodríguez offers the generic thrills of investigative procedural as gripping cover under which to smuggle in all manner of historical reflection and state-of-the-nation commentary. For the most part the film’s action is rooted in a particular time and place, with great attention paid to period detail (and inspired in part by the work of another photographer, Atín Aya)  – but there is also an element of surrealism here that might best be characterised as ‘Lynchian’, be it the battered teen body found in the water, the presence of a supposed medium, the key scenes taking place in a hunting ‘lodge’, or even the birds (flamingoes, kingfishers, etc.) that keep distracting Juan (who himself comes with a bird-themed nickname). As this stranger imagery laps up against the shoreline, Rodríguez never lets us forget that the Sevillian plain, for all its grounded reality, has also become here a more fluid locus of the mind, as well as a staging area for these dramas of the Spanish subconscious.

Anticipation: Well, I liked Wetlands

Enjoyment: Procedural and politics in Spain’s deep south.

In Retrospect: Allegory washes up against mystery in this Spanish period noir.

© Anton Bitel