by Matt Levine
There’s no exorcising the sins of the past—either personal or political—in the moody Spanish thriller Marshland. Set in a tiny, forgotten coastal town in the Guadalquivir Marshes of southwest Spain, the film takes place during one of the most turbulent periods in Spanish history: 1980, when the country was still transitioning to a democracy after the death of longtime dictator Francisco Franco, not to mention dealing with armed separatist and neo-fascist groups and widespread strikes. Marshland approaches this dense socio-historical context through a vivid (if familiar) serial-killer mystery, drawing an overt allegory between the evil that humans and nation-states are capable of. At times resembling a Spanish True Detective conveyed through a grim, David Fincher-esque aesthetic, Marshland might be dour and self-serious, but its swift narrative and emphasis on a chilling real-world history keep it interesting.
Film Society of Minneapolis/Saint Paul
Director: Alberto Rodríguez
Producers: Mercedes Cantero, Juan Carlos Caro, José Antonio Félez, Mercedes Gamero, Mikel Lejarza, Rosa Pérez, José Sánchez-Montes, Pepe Torrescusa
Writers: Rafael Cobos, Alberto
Cinematographer: Alex Catalán
Editor: José M.G. Moyano
Music: Julio de la Rosa
Cast: Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo, María Varod, Perico Cervantes, Jesús Ortiz, Jesús Carroza, Salva Reina, Antonio de la Torre, Nerea Borres, Ana Tomeno
Premiere: September 19, 2014 – Donastia-San Sebastián International Film Festival
US Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
We are hardly introduced to the two protagonists before we stumble along with them (their car having ominously died) into the small town of Villafranco. A pair of detectives, the movie posits them as blatant opposites: the older Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), who served for many years on “Franco’s Gestapo” (as one character calls it), is charismatic but cynical, a boozer and womanizer who doesn’t mind using physical force to get answers; his younger partner Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) is solemn and sensitive, an avid democrat and soon-to-be-father. They’ve been sent from Madrid on a thankless assignment, tasked with investigating the disappearance of twin sisters from the poverty-stricken coastal town. Villafranco is vividly evoked by director Alberto Rodríguez and cinematographer Alex Catalán, each blade of parched grass and dusty rural road seeming to exude a wave of humid air.
The detectives have barely started their investigation when its horrible depths are revealed: the two girls were raped, tortured, and killed, along with several other young women over the last few years. Marshland doesn’t flinch in discussing (though not showing) the gruesome specifics of the crimes, building an air of impending (and perhaps overstated) dread. As expected, there are a few overt suspects: the handsome Quini (Jesús Castro), for example, who apparently has slept with most of the town’s female population, or the girls’ father Rodrigo (Antonio de la Torre), who seems ready to explode into a fit of rage at any moment. But the plot inevitably thickens, the truth becoming knottier and more disturbing: something to do with the labor protests taking place just before the town’s lucrative rice-harvesting season and a wealthy businessman under the mayor’s vigilant protection. Marshland’s twisty storyline is well-balanced, offering us the genre thrills of a dark whodunit while expanding the explanation into weighty political territory.
If the country’s economic climate forms a rocky battleground for the detectives’ investigation, Spain’s recent history under General Franco (and the aftermath of his death) have equally strong bearing on the characters. The tension between Juan and Pedro—natural enemies, to a certain extent, given the former’s association with Franco’s regime and the latter’s dedication to liberal reform—is heightened by a photographer for a nearby tabloid, who informs Pedro that Juan killed at least 100 people (activists and ideologues, mostly) as a soldier in Franco’s brigade. In fact, the mystery of the young women’s murders eventually shares equal weight with the mystery of Juan’s past, leading to a climactic murder that could be considered either an act of salvation or brutality. Marshland’s final image offers potent symbolism: a corpse drifting out to the Atlantic Ocean eventually swallowed beneath the surface, a violent sin swept out with the tide only to presumably resurface years later.
Admittedly, these allusions to Spain’s sociopolitical history aren’t always presented in the most graceful form. Banners and graffiti pop up throughout town, spelling out their crises in explicit form: “Fair Wages” reads one slogan, while another farmhouse wall reads, “Long Live Franco. Victory Was Ours and Always Will Be.” One of the vanished girls, too, has a labor pamphlet in her desk drawer. The illustration of a fraught historical setting is both vague and heavy-handed: while these mottoes are impossible to ignore, the reality of post-Franco Spain is never really elucidated—some knowledge of recent Spanish history seems essential in interpreting the movie’s deeper allegory. (For example, the fact that militant terrorist groups like the neo-fascist ETA and the Maoist GRAPO were rampaging through Spain in 1980 makes Marshland’s link between political violence and serial killing that much more unsettling.) Presumably these events would be more legible to Spanish audiences, but one still wishes Marshland more fully evoked the political reality of its setting, especially considering that the movie takes great pains to allegorize its mystery narrative.
If the film’s historical connections are sometimes blatantly presented, Marshland’s overall tone can be equally strident. The film is so intent on offering a solemn, serious-minded thriller that it provides no room for levity or the unexpected. There’s nothing wrong with dark movies, of course (most of the time I prefer them), but an unrepentantly dreary tone is both unrealistic and often less affecting. Periodic hallucinations involving brightly-colored animals, perceived by Juan in fits of despair, offer fleeting examples of unpredictability, but mostly the film consists of stoic men grimacing or glaring in response to somber information.
That being said, Marshland is also ultimately a genre exercise—namely a dark serial-killer mystery—and its embrace of neo-noir tropes is admittedly entertaining. From the vibrant, high-contrast color scheme (shadowy rooms and eye-popping terrain are both in abundance here) to a suitably eerie score by Julio de la Rosa, Marshland knows how to build and maintain a chilling atmosphere. There are a few masterful scenes that are worth the price of admission alone: a dreamy image of a woman walking down a dusty street bathed in red light, or a terrifying moment when an unexpected abductee pops up from a trunk in the middle of a car chase. The movie’s lofty budget is used well, achieving slick entertainment with the aroma (but not the overbearing stench) of Hollywood.
Perhaps the most memorable aesthetic device in the film is a series of god’s-eye vantage points, staring down on this marshy terrain from seemingly hundreds of feet in the air. Immaculately digitized from photographs by Hector Garrido, the strange Rorschach patterns of the terrain mixed with tiny specks of humanity are vivid and bizarre, symbolic and unnerving. Resembling the ravines of the human brain or an interconnected roots pattern, these images perfectly convey the film’s guiding motif: that human beings and political events are interconnected, that the past intervenes in the present and that disparate individuals need to somehow coexist, even if their ideologies make them enemies. Marshland isn’t perfect, but at its best it conveys this idea in thrilling fashion, offering the unlikeliest of hybrids: a riveting genre exercise that’s also painfully engaged with the real world.