La Ciénaga: What a Dump

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Synopsis

La Ciénaga (2001) is a film almost entirely devoid of action and narrative plot. The film starts with Mecha, a bourgeois Argentine woman, who, while sunbathing with her friends at her home in Salta, drunkenly falls and cuts her chest. Mecha becomes bedridden after the incident and from then on there are no major events. We watch as the family drifts slowly into disarray in their decaying country estate during an era of corruption and instability in the country.

Argentina After the Dirty War

The first civilian president of Argentina after the fall of the military dictatorship, Raul Alfonsin, assumed power in 1983. Right off the bat, he implemented the Austral Plan which was an austerity program that aimed to reform the economy, implement a new currency, pay off foreign debts, and decrease inflation. Initially, these measures worked, but soon inflation rates rose a lot. As if the economic downfall wasn’t big enough, Alfonsin had to please the military who were upset that they received insufficient funds and that many of its members were on trial for human rights violations. In response, Alfonsin was forced to give them a larger role in policymaking.

Carlos Menem

By 1989, Carlos Menem, a member of the Justicialist Party, was elected president with only 47% of the popular vote. During his campaign, Menem had made vague promises and appealed to the working class of Argentina by harkening back to Peron. He assumed office 5 months early in order to deal with the economic disaster at hand. Menem very quickly adopted neoliberal tactics to alleviate the problem. He called for free markets, lower tariffs, and privatized a lot of state industries.  Again, he faced the same problem as Alfonsin. The military requested more support so Menem pardoned a lot of military men for their human rights abuses. In 1993, his party launched a campaign for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for a second term, it passed, and Menem was reelected in 1995.

Near the end of his second term, his popularity sank. There was high unemployment, a risk of a recession, and accusations of corruption. Menem would later be charged for illegal arms trafficking, embezzlement of public funds, and extortion. In 1999, Argentina held another election and Fernando de la Rua who headed an alliance of parties led by the Radicals was elected. He was also faced with corruption charges after he bribed senators in order to gain a majority. To top it all off, the economy tanked leading to unrest throughout the country and by December 2001, De la Rua had called a state of emergency. He resigned by December 20. It was that year that La Ciénaga was released in theaters and everyone could voice their discontent at the elite which stayed still as the country ran into ruin.

A New Perspective in Latin American Film

The director of La Ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel, is a part of a wave of female Latin American directors like Lucia Puenzo and Katia Lund. Previously, the major Argentine directors focused their films on the dictatorship, but this new generation wanted to move away from this. Martel’s gaze aimed to dismantle traditional forms of Argentine cinema and cinema in general. Martel does not tell a political epic but a film devoid of major action and with a different gaze. Images that are usually captured with an air of eroticism are completely stripped with Martel. Scenes of the bourgeois houseguests sunbathing by the pool don’t seem sexy at all, they seem humid above everything else… and very sticky.

La Ciénaga

Martel also shies away from magical realism, a style popularized by Gabriel Garcia Marquez and common in works across the continent. Martel has said, “I was raised on stories where fantastical things cohabitated with everyday life. For me, this has nothing to do with the ‘magical realism’ often discussed in Latin American literature and culture. I don’t agree with this idea that there exists some sort of layer of magic over reality.” Moments that are ripe for magical realism are quite natural with Martel. Throughout the film, the Virgin Mary is invoked as well as the mythical “African rat” but they never show up. The events of the film are pretty routine but always harsh.

The Decaying Bourgeoisie

La Ciénaga

The bourgeois of the film are too busy dancing, drinking, and lounging to realize they are crumbling. Their country estate itself is a perfect example of this. In short, it’s a mess. It’s clear that at one point this estate was prestigious and beautiful but now it is coated in overgrown wildlife. Who’s fault could it be that this house has fallen apart? According to Mecha, everyone and everything but her is to blame for this. When her kids complain about the state of their pool she says that that is only because the filter and the pump have inexplicably stopped working. Mecha is incapable of seeing her own flaws even when they are obvious to everyone else. After being scratched all over her chest from her fall, she becomes bedridden. Everyone reminisces about how Mecha’s own mother remained in her bed for the last 20 years of her life, but knowing this does not make Mecha want to recover fast. She is resigned to her fate. Nothing will change. The last few presidents had dealt with the same issues and escalated the same tensions. For someone who already has it all, why try to change it?

The Virgin Mary

La Ciénaga

What can you do if you are going to be affected by the constant inflation and corruption? Martel believes that religion has a hypnotic effect on these people. Throughout the film, newscasts appear following a woman who claimed to have seen the Virgin Mary in the water tower near her home. Despite the media attention, nobody is able to see it. For working-class Argentines, so much is unable to be changed or helped. So while the upper classes stay docile by drinking and dawdling, the lower classes remain under the spell of a higher power. There is a desperate longing in these people for stability and growth that the country’s leaders have not been able to provide.

La Ciénaga may start off slow but it reveals the problems that are simmering to a boil in the most artful and brutal way. For those of you that enjoy this movie, I highly recommend the Brazilian film, Neighboring Sounds!

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