With Unit 7, Alberto Rodriguez paid homage to his native Seville whilst producing a fine urban thriller. Now he does the same for rural Spain, moving an hour south to the marshlands of Andalucia. While 7 was explosive, Marshland is noirishly tense on different levels, its tight focus on character, its realism, it’s sense of place and its social critique adding up to a grippingly intense whole — and that’s not to mention it’s satisfyingly twisting plotline. Though puzzlingly it’s been overlooked by the Spanish Film Academy as the country’s foreign film nomination, Marshland merits international exposure as an example of both one of the year’s best Spanish-language films and of how to fold significance into genre.
The lingering silent final shot of the two miserable anti-heroes at the end of Unit 7 suggested that Rodriguez and his long-term writing partner Rafael Cobos had more to say about cops with issues, and with Marshland they say it. It’s 1980, during the political transition period when Spain was negotiating the change between dictatorship and democracy. Juan (Javier Gutierrez) and rookie Pedro (Raul Arevalo) have traveled from Madrid to Spain’s deep south to investigate the mysterious disappearance of two sisters after a local fiesta. (The sisters had, a local cop informs them, a “reputation.”) A crucifix inset with images of Hitler and Franco on their hotel wall suggests that the law may be about to encounter some conservative resistance to their enquiries from a community happy to turn a blind eye to the occasional disappearance of a girl or two.
Initially they are led to the sisters’ father shifty, suspicious father Rodrigo (a typically focused Antonio de la Torre, from Grupo 7 and more recently from Cannibal), and to his understandably downtrodden wife Rocio (Nerea Barros), who hands over a few damaged negatives of the semi-naked girls in a bedroom. Soon the sisters’ bodies are discovered and they enlist the help of isolated local Jesus (comedian Salva Reina, here anything but comic). When a drunken man with a rifle stumbles into the hotel seeking justice for his own dead girlfriend, a pattern of deaths starts to emerge. Inevitably, but sadly credibly for this region, the issue of drug smuggling soon raises its head.
Underpinning the tensions between the outsiders and the pueblo are the tensions inside the pueblo itself, with the mayor aggressively seeking to keep the peace in a town where the workers are already on strike, complaining about low wages following a failure of the rice harvest. And crucially, there is tension between the cops themselves. The violent, insecure Juan interrogates by hitting first and asking questions afterwards: he represents the old way of doing things. The more hesitant and circumspect Pedro is the future, believing for example that justice is more important than blood ties, but disgusted at having to take orders from the older man, whose past he seeks to uncover in a separate side-mission.
There is nothing remotely special about these cops: when we first meet them, their car has broken down. They proceed in a plodding, methodical way without any sudden, mysterious flashes of insight to strain credibility. Much of the quality of Marshland is rooted in such realism, deriving not only from research but from insider knowledge, from the ferries which transport both legal and illegal cargo to the remoter outposts of the river system, to its sometimes absurdist dialogue, down to the local cuisine (river crabs), or — and this is really one for true connoisseurs — the crucial distinction between a Citroen Dyane 6 and a 2CV.
Characters float in and out of the story, but there’s detail in all of them. Among them are the local journo (Manolo Solo) and cockily defiant Quini (Jesus Castro, from recent Spanish B.O. hit El Nino). Performances are classy across the board, though of the leads it’s Gutierrez, too often a standby in forgettable comedies, who stands out in the role of his lifetime so far.
The script uses the thriller format to lock together the personal, the social and the political in what adds up to not only a darkly ambiguous thriller but a portrait of an isolated community, and a whole society, in flux: a marshland. Here nothing is solid and everything is slippery — not least the distinction between cop and criminal. The sordid discoveries between the apparently normal surface that Juan and Pedro uncover are not, Twin Peaks-like, grounded in weirdo psychology, but in real social events: among its themes, one with contemporary resonance, is that of changing attitudes to child abuse.
Visually and atmospherically, Marshland is suffused with an eerie oppressiveness, entirely at odds with the region’s reputation for light-hearted alegria. Many of the carefully-composed shots of this visually active film are delivered from ground and water level. One hauntingly poetic image has Juan awakening from being knocked out to look out groggily at a richly-colored, hazy sunset, the sky dotted with ducks. It is beautiful but surreal, encapsulating the film’s visual tone generally. At moments of high tension there are strangely-made aerial shots, intriguing for both their rich color and their geometry, which allow the story some breathing space and provide some perspective on the terrible human events unfolding below.