“People get weird when the water gets high,” we’re told early on in Silvina Schnicer and Ulises Porra Guardiola’s rich, seductive debut “Tigre.” And in this part of the world, it seems, the water is always high. As much a mood as a movie and as much about place as plot, it’s a film that derives a great deal of its power from the minute examination of a spectacular, specific location: a small, sparsely populated, verdantly overgrown island in Argentina’s Parana Delta. Down here where old, exhausted rivers spread out into the sea, the water flows only sluggishly, the air is damp and torpid, and the swampy vegetation full of hiding places where kids develop weird rituals amid clouds of biting insects. And while the people who live here or come to visit have their own conflicts and tragedies, and while the bulldozers levelling whole areas of jungle for development threaten to change the landscape forever, still there’s an inescapable impression of ancientness, like the uncanny spirit of the delta was here long before people came and will remain long after we’re gone.
The confluence of the past, the present and the future also provides the basis for the human drama that unfolds against this enveloping backdrop. Rina (Marilú Marini) a woman in her mid-sixties, returns to the island after many years away, to the boarded-up, reeking wooden house where she raised her now middle-aged son Facundo (Agustín Rittano). She’s accompanied by her friend Elena (María Ucedo), whose coltish, rebellious teenage daughter Sabrina (Magalí Fernández) has best friend Meli (Ornella D’Elia) and gawky potential boyfriend Estebán (Tomás Raimondi) in tow. And there’s a still-younger generation on this inaccessible island too, a scattering of boys in orbit around the runaway preteen daughter of the local boatman, who rules over her little tribe with primal “Lord of the Flies”-style wildness.
Rina and Elena set to work to make the house habitable, as Rina is certain it can’t be repossessed by developers if she’s living there. Facundo is not so sure, though he has a hidden agenda regarding the sale of the house that Rina will regard as a betrayal. Meanwhile, the teenagers flirt through their sexual awakening, and artefacts from the house’s history — boxes of corsets and faded lace and Facundo’s childhood collection of catapults and spears — are unearthed, tried out and tried on for size.
The waterlogged, sweltering setting and the decomposing familial bonds inevitably recall fellow Argentinian Lucrecia Martel’s masterful “La Cienaga.” But Schnicer and Guardiola’s film also fits within another recent tradition from the region, alongside titles like “A History of Fear” and “Parabellum” in its evocation of a dislocated, groundless but almost tangible paranoia. It helps that Schnicer’s screenplay is so elegant and concise, and that it’s brought to life by the uniformly excellent performances, Ivan Gierasinchuk’s textural, tactile photography, Nahuel Palenque’s layered, seething sound design and the repetitive, Philip Glass-like motifs of Cruclax and Santiago Palenque’s fine modernist score. But drawing all these ingredients together into a coherent whole is a different matter, and while far more is hinted at than can possibly be fully explored, still Schnicer and Guardiola have a confidence in this small, strange series of enigmas that belies their relative inexperience.
There is unease creeping in from the edge of every frame, as surely as the world outside encroaches on Rina’s old home at floodtide, and as remorselessly as the past invades the present. The old does not sit well with the new and the young are full of scorn for the old. In a lighthearted moment, Rina unexpectedly reveals that she went on a Tinder date some months before, but the encounter caused her to quickly delete the app from her phone. And when Meli discovers her best friend’s mom making an abortive drunken pass at Esteban, the contempt is written in bold across her face. Just because the tribes and families of this microcosmic world are matriarchal, doesn’t mean that the women, girls and nearly-women have any mutual respect or understanding.
In fact, the thicket of intergenerational mistrust and miscommunication is as dense and treacherous as the jungle outside, and the stultifying menace in the air feels like it must inevitably end in violence. Who will be its perpetrator and who will be its victim is never clear until it comes, but even then it feels like a manifestation of the island’s alien, malevolent atmosphere, rather than a cathartic moment of interpersonal drama. It’s the same way that the bulldozers on the other side of the island, for all the threat and modernity they represent, also seem somehow pathetic in their attempt to tame this wild, unknowable region: In the mysterious melt of “Tigre,” places make people, and not the other way around.