Two large families try to cope with each other during a hot, sluggish summer in “The Swamp,” an atmospheric and cumulatively impressive feature-length debut from Argentine writer-director Lucrecia Martel. Slice-of-life nature of proceedings and seemingly intentional blurring of familial relationships rep a challenge for auds, but work exhibits an admirably sure directorial hand in service to a story as much about economically driven middle-class decline and ennui as the rough-and-tumble domestic politics of crowded households. Drama possesses a staying power that warrants notice by other international fests and serious filmgoers. Argentine release is set for April 5.
At the decaying and decidedly unpicturesque northern Argentina country estate of La Mandragora, weary matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges) endures the combination of a particularly sticky February, four accident-prone teenagers and a distant husband, Gregorio (Martin Adjemian), by drinking at the side of the spread’s filthy pool in between cloudbursts. Some distance away in the city of La Cienaga, Mecha’s cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran) also has a full house, with a hunt-crazy husband and four small children — but no pool. As crowds gather to glimpse the Virgin Carmen on a local water tower and the hunting season heats up, the families intertwine in an effort to survive the summer and themselves.
At first blush complex and seemingly unstructured, pic was actually developed over five years by the largely self-taught Martel (herself from a large family), who parlayed TV and doc work, the 1999 Sundance/NHK script award and support of vet producer Lita Stantic into a 40-day shoot with virtually no improvisation from a largely amateur supporting cast selected from more than 1,600 interviews with area children.
This rigorous preparation yields a film that looks to have been made on the fly but wasn’t, a subtlety which may be lost on many viewers but nevertheless tips helmer as an intriguing new talent to watch.
A clearer understanding of which moppet belongs to which clan would have been nice, but isn’t essential or perhaps even appropriate to Martel’s point that on this socioeconomic level in this country at this point in time, tradition and structure are giving way to lethargy and confusion.
Tech credits are atmospheric, with the alert, confident camera of Hugo Colace (who shot Eliseo Subiela’s “The Dark Side of the Heart”) and the DTS Surround track of nearly constant thunder from the heavy skies imbuing the proceedings with a palpable sense of indolent foreboding. Attention seemed justified, as Martel picked up the Alfred Bauer Prize for debut helmers from Berlin’s Intl. Jury.