Marshland (La Isla Minima) by Spanish director Alberto Rodriguez laces a sharply honed policía procesal (sadistic serial killer included) with traces from Spain’s recent fascist past. If you don’t get all the historical themes, not to worry, you’ll be completely engaged. — first by the incredible opening shots of the fertile Guadalquivir estuary in southwest Spain, then by the two leads, detectives Juan [Javier Gutiérrez], old-school, with a dark past in Franco’s gestapo which will slowly come to light, and Pedro [Raúl Arévalo], new school, idealistic about the new nation in formation, but becoming acquainted with the less idealistic parts of human behavior. They make a good team, changing roles of good-cop/bad-cop from time to time, and providing evidence of the forces pulling at each other during the transicion from Francismo to democracy.
Two big city cops are sent to rural Andalucía to investigate the disappearance of two adolescent sisters from the tiny town. For those to whom Spain is all flamenco, cathedrals, Madrid or Barcelona the setting of the movie will be an eye-opener. We could be in rural Kern County, California with irrigation canals and dusty road-topped berms to chase the bad-guys on or, in other scenes, the wet bayou meanders of Louisiana. Small town life with its secrets and not-so secrets. The two girls who disappeared might well have gone to Madrid as have been abducted. But they are not the first so the homicide detectives have been called. Not as apparent as the geography, but a strong part of the atmosphere, are the rural accents and attitudes as the two question witnesses and other interested parties.
A young, handsome man turns up early as a suspect, following him a mysterious man in a hat. The father of the two girls might even be in the list of suspects; his wife whispers in secret to the detectives. Even in newly democratic Spain wealth and connections matter, not all parties will be brought in.
The photography is stunning throughout, from the opening high-altitude shots of a terrain that looks like a body laid open for a medical school class, to noir-lit interiors. Dark, pulsing music keeps the tension high. Sudden sounds, surprise attacks and foot-races, familiar elements of thrillers, are all well used.
The film won ten Goyas at this year’s Spanish Academy Awards, including Best Film, Best Cinematography and Best Director.
One caveat I’ll share is a scene of pulling bodies from the water and a graphic description of torture. I do not understand the attraction of sadism to contemporary movie makers. A simple disappearance or disposing of bodies off dark piers is no longer enough; a beating in an alley not enough. To keep the attention of jaded audiences, film makers think they have to push across another boundary: Let’s have some torture!. To my mind, however, it’s a way of cheating. Raising the horror quotient is a cheap way to get adrenaline running, hoping it will leak across into the story and characters, instead of getting it honestly, with good scripts, intriguing situations and, shall we call it, ordinary fear? Marshlands has plenty of all of that and didn’t need to go for the sadist-high.
Rodriguez is not a neophyte director. Marshlands is his 6th feature length film, along with some shorts and a TV series. I’ll be looking for a showing of El Traje/ The Suit (2002), and perhaps El Grupo 7 / Unit 7 (2012) if only to see Sevilla in the movies. With the acclaim following Marshlands we will surely see him again. There has been plenty of good crime fiction written in Spain since the end of the Franco regime. In particular I’d like to see Manuel Vázquez Montalbán‘s Pepe Carvahlo mysteries brought to the screen, with all his gastronomic interludes.
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