Category: Spanish Cinema

Marshland (La isla mínima, Spain 2014)


The Spanish title refers to a village/a part of the marshland in the delta

Marshland is a brilliantly executed crime thriller that grips throughout its whole 105 minutes. It has an arresting and original title sequence and its use of landscape and local culture is terrific. It’s only after several hours of reflection that I’m beginning to develop some doubts and they are mostly about the script. The trio of director Alberto Rodríguez and his co-writer Rafael Cobos plus cinematographer Alex Catalán, and indeed most of the creative team, have worked on two previous crime thrillers, all set in Andalusia. With Marshland they seem to have moved up a notch and the film has won several Goya Awards in Spain. The film’s USP is its historical setting in that difficult period following the death of Franco and the struggle to establish a real democracy in Spain at the end of the 1970s. The two detectives assigned to the case of a pair of missing teenage sisters in the marshlands of the Guadalquivir delta are a mismatched pair. Juan is an experienced officer from the fascist past and Pedro is a younger man committed to a democratic future. Juan has all the old tricks for ‘persuading’ witnesses to talk but Pedro, aiming to be ‘straight’, tends to annoy the locals with his challenges to ingrained ideas. The two men keep their distance from each other but they gradually learn how to work together. This latter is in some ways what the film is about – what must it be like to live in a country that has just ‘awoken’ after a nightmare of forty years? That person you meet, that person you work with might have all kinds of skeletons in their cupboards. How much do you need to compromise in order to get things done? Can you compromise and still stay true to a democratic ideal?

My slight worry about the film is that though this social sub-text should perhaps be the central concern of the narrative, instead the team seem more interested in making an American-style serial killer thriller. Most commentators have referred to the HBO series True Detective. I must be the only person who hasn’t seen the series which I understand begins in a similar environment in Louisiana and which also refers to a ‘cold case’ seventeen years ago that is now seen as re-opened with the detectives’ work on the original crime under scrutiny. Not having seen this model, I’m inclined to think of David Fincher’s work on Seven (1995) and Zodiac (2007) which both have a similar sense of period design, an almost fetishised sense of crime scenes, and an anger and commitment that drives the isolated investigator. The problem for me with Fincher’s Hollywood models is that they tend towards being ‘personal’ rather than ‘societal’ in scope – they are like gruesome puzzle narratives in which the narrative agents (police, journalists) suffer. They don’t say that much directly about the society that produces the crimes.

Pedro (Raúl Arévalo, nearest camera) and Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) out in the marshes

Pedro (Raúl Arévalo, nearest camera) and Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) out in the marshes.

I prefer to think about Marshland in relation to other European crime thrillers police procedurals, especially Mediterranean narratives from Southern France and Italy (although to be pedantic this is technically an ‘Atlantic’ thriller). What is most important is that the two detectives come into a conservative, almost feudal, community from outside. I’m not sure how clearly this is explained in the script (the subtitles may miss nuances). There is a reference to a letter Pedro has sent to the press criticising the slow pace of change. Juan’s problems are revealed later in the narrative. Certainly there is a sense that they are being sent to this rural backwater from Madrid rather than to big city cases. Pedro hopes that success in the case will get him posted to a Madrid investigations team. When the two men come into contact with the local Guardia Civil they begin to realise that there are unwritten rules about crimes and relationships that are not necessarily investigated thoroughly and that assumptions are made about witnesses and victims of crimes. Although they are generally very different in style and tone, there is something of Inspector Montalbano in the way in which the local police operate in a community where many people know a lot but aren’t talking. The detectives also realise that this case is being pursued (where others have been neglected) because ‘somebody knows somebody high up’.

One of Hector Garrido's images – is this landscape or a representation of the human brain?

One of Hector Garrido’s images – is this landscape or a representation of the human brain?

I’m most tempted by the potential links between Marshland and the South Korean film Memories of Murder (2003). Bong Joon-ho’s masterpiece also begins in the ricefields with crime scenes in ditches and fields and local police officers feeling overwhelmed before a ‘big city cop’ arrives. Bong’s film is also set in the past – the 1980s – and deals with the investigation of a real crime. But his film seems both more comic, more brutal and more stark but also more ‘humanist’ and much richer in its political analysis – and it refuses the conventional ‘narrative closure’ of the crime film. But perhaps I’m being unfair – there are other aspects of Marshlands that also contribute meanings and the central feature of the narrative – young girls wanting to leave the region to have a future and being easily seduced by those offering opportunities – is in itself part of a social critique. Juan has a medical problem and this may be the reason he appears to hallucinate. On two occasions a single bird appears in a scene incongruously – rather like the cow that Vinz sees in La Haine (France 1995). Or are these merely signifiers of the mystical nature of life in the marshes? There is a woman in the narrative who is said to have ‘second sight’ – and she certainly knows something about Juan. There is also the wonderful credits sequence which uses photographic images created by the artist Hector Garrido. These (see the image above) are aerial photographs of the delta that make it appear more like a painting of the human brain. According to this web review of the film the overall visual style is also informed by the work of Atin Aya who took photographs of the people and landscapes of Andalusia between 1955 and 2007.

The cinematography is one of the strongest elements of the film. Besides the extraordinary aerial shots, the landscape gives opportunities for action framed in long shots across marshes and ricefields. The colour palette has been adjusted and the lashing rainstorms help to create the perfect environment for chases. One car chase was the most compelling I’ve seen for some time.

So, there is plenty to admire here and I’ll happily watch the film again to look out for the aspects of the script that I might have missed in the lead up to the action film ending. I think my real concern is with UK distributors and exhibitors. Marshland opened the week before Theeb, the Jordanian film I’ve written about on The Global Film Book blog. Both films are among the best I’ve seen this year but whereas Theeb opened in only 13 cinemas, Marshland has been much more visible in 32, playing once or twice a day in my nearest arthouse. I hope that Marshland becomes appreciated as a Spanish crime film rather than just an interesting subtitled alternative to Hollywood.

Marshland‘s UK trailer with examples of cinematography and use of aerial photographs:

¡Viva! 21 #2: Os fenómenos (Aces, Spain 2014)


Lola Duenas as Neneta with one of the workers who dreads retirement which will surely be forced on him if the building boom ends.

Widely seen as a Galician version of a Ken Loach film, Os fenómenos is engaging and intriguing with its ‘open’ ending. It isn’t the first Galician nod to Ken, that would be Mondays in the Sun (2002) with Javier Bardem as an unemployed shipbuilder, but with its ensemble cast of workers in the construction sector complete with ‘lump’ workers (i.e. the ‘undeclared’ workforce of migrants), its Chrissie Rock type of character played here by Lola Duenas and plenty of humour, it has many Loachian elements.

Duenas (best known for her roles for Almodóvar and in Alejandro Amenábar’s The Sea Inside) plays Neneta, abandoned by her partner Wolf and left to look after their infant son Roi on her own in Wolf’s improvised campervan. She returns to Galicia, makes peace with her mother (and babysitter) and gets a job on a building site. Cue many predictable jokes and badinage before she gains respect. The characters in the group of workers on the site are carefully written. There is an element of class distinction (Neneta completed a degree before she opted out of a bourgeois lifestyle). One of the workers is a religious young man with a family whereas others have been attracted to the good money builders can earn in boom time. Once she is accepted, Neneta’s world gets brighter, including her love life. But all this is prior to 2008 and the collapse of the Spanish economy, caused in part by speculative building projects. All of the workers are headed for trouble.

The reaction to the crash is the political test of the film and this is where it departs from the Loachian model and the other films of French/Belgian/British ‘social realism’. There seems to be an almost calm acceptance that it is all over – a willingness to simply walk away and try something else. Resignation rather than anger? Is this what is happening in Spain?

The film’s title also points to a political issue. It translates as ‘Aces’ – the term given by the building company owner to the workers who complete the most jobs each month. This piecework payment is divisive and largely corrupt. Neneta is smart enough to work out how to play the system but alongside the distinction between ‘declared’ and ‘undeclared’ payments it perpetuates discrimination just like the ‘lump’ system (labourer’s paid cash in hand without contracts) in the UK. There didn’t seem to be any discussion of unions in the film – perhaps that’s the point about the greed of bosses and some workers?

Os fenómenos is a film with many strong points from writing and direction by Alfonso Zarauza and Jaione Camborda through to cinematography and casting/performance. It’s interesting too in its focus on a working mother and there are key aspects of the narrative that focus on her personal life and how this interconnects with her success at work. Through the other workers we also get some sense about what unemployment might mean to different people. The film has been warmly praised and audiences clearly like it. I did think though that Neneta learned her building craft skills very quickly and I feel frustrated by the lack of anger in the film. Perhaps it’s just me – there has been a similar ‘acceptance’ of unnecessary cuts and austerity policies in the UK. Perhaps Greece will show us the way? Certainly we need more politically-focused films. I enjoyed Os fenómenos and I would recommend it, but I would have liked more anger. 

¡Viva! 21 #1: Who Killed Bambi? (¿Quién mató a Bambi?, Spain 2013)

Clara Lago and Ernesto Alterio as two-thirds of the team of kidnappers.

Clara Lago and Ernesto Alterio as two-thirds of the team of kidnappers.

This highly-entertaining black comedy was the opening gala screening of the ¡Viva! Weekender and on the Saturday the director, Santi Amodeo was present for a Q&A. The gnomic title is explained as the plot unfolds but this is actually a remake of Matando Cabos a popular Mexican comedy from 2004. Amodeo wrote the script for his adaptation, his first mainstream film with a ‘big’ budget. Like the other film on Saturday afternoon, Os fenómenos, Who Killed Bambi? is predicated on the desperation felt by many during the current economic depression in Spain. This is a black farce in which two separate ‘hostages’ are involved in schemes/fiascos. One involves an Italian who faces bankruptcy after his pizzeria fails to attract upmarket customers. The second involves a young man who is dating his boss’s daughter – and finds his position under threat. The Italian wants to kidnap the boss for ransom and the boyfriend finds himself saddled with a comatose boss by accident – inadvertently causing someone else to be the kidnap victim.

The third ‘ingredient’ in the plot is a dubious lawyer with a serious drug habit. In the Q&A Amodeo explained that the lawyer was a Spanish invention – a bit of ‘local colour’ replacing the wrestler in the Mexican version. (Both characters being iconic roles in local cultures.) I won’t spoil who Bambi is – but I will explain that the film’s title refers to the film about the Sex Pistols that was to have been made by Russ Meyer from a script by Roger Ebert in 1978! I should have remembered this! The other bit of high-profile ‘local colour’ is a surprise appearance by Andres Iniesta, the Spain and Barcelona football maestro. (The narrative does include a sequence in a football stadium, but not Camp Nou.) Who Killed Bambi? is the kind of mainstream Spanish comedy we rarely see in the UK (though it reminded me in parts of Ferpect Crime, the Alex de laIglesia comedy I saw at the Leeds Film Festival last November). I enjoyed the film very much. There is a great deal of violence, mostly cartoonish blows to the head to keep the hostages quiet – but at least one action we don’t expect usually expect in a comedy. I don’t see any reason why the film shouldn’t succeed on release in the UK – except that it would need subtitles. It’s sad that UK audiences miss out in this way. Amodeo himself wrote much of the music that appears in the film and this is another appealing aspect of the whole package.

The central character of David, the would-be son-in-law, is played by Quim Gutiérrez who I remember from The Last Days at ¡Viva! 2014. He’s very good, as are the others in the cast. Asked about the Hollywood influences on the film, the director pointed out that they were present in the Mexican original and, yes, they did include Tarantino and the Coen Brothers. Even so, this struck me as very much a Spanish film.  Santi Amodeo is scheduled to make an English language film in a co-production. It promises to be interesting.

¡Viva! at 21: Manchester’s Spanish and Latin American Film Festival

The opening film is Who Killed Bambi? (¿Quién mató a Bambi?, Spain 2013)

The opening film is Who Killed Bambi? (¿Quién mató a Bambi?, Spain 2013)

It’s an important year for ¡Viva!. The festival comes of age with its 21st edition as its Cornerhouse base gears up to move to HOME, Manchester’s spiffing new multi-arts venue. The festival team have therefore devised an ingenious plan to offer ¡Viva! 2015 in three long weekenders. The first runs from March 5th to March 9th and offers five films with accompanying Q&As and introductions. Four of the films are playing twice and all the screenings and other events are listed on the Cornerhouse website.

We’ve been a supporter of ¡Viva! for many years and you can see reviews of earlier festival screenings via this tag. ¡Viva! is often the only way in the UK to see important films from Spain and Latin America which will not receive UK distribution. It’s only the hard work of ¡Viva!’s staff (and the support of sponsors) that enables the festival to bring in prints and filmmakers. This first weekend includes films from Spain as well as from Colombia, Ecuador and Argentina.

The second ¡Viva! weekender will focus on six Mexican films in June in the new venue at HOME and the third part will focus on Spanish cinema in the Autumn. Festival programmer Rachel Hayward spoke to the Northern Soul website and explained:

“We absolutely wanted to make sure we took the audience with us on the journey from Cornerhouse to HOME and showcase the festival in this way. It’s perhaps a more manageable way to do it, given such a relatively small team working on it here, but we also thought it was important for audiences to be able to see such a popular festival in HOME rather than waiting almost a full year.”

“Next year, 2016, we’ll definitely be going back to the standard format. But we’re very interested to see how these weekenders work, of course.”

We hope to be at the screenings over the weekend and to report back next week.