Film Review – LA CIÉNEGA


Finally, time for a film review. Wedding MC duties complete, and I’m kicking back in Ganado Class on the bizarre, and empty, Anchorage-Petropavlosk flight. It must be the only US flight that crosses the northern Pacific to Russia. Departing once a week, it even has its own dedicated terminal at Anchorage; the halls are shabby and tired, as if preparing the traveler for, how to say it tactfully, less ‘well developed’ Russian airports. The flight has the remarkable side effect of making an entire day disappear in only 4 hours. I leave Monday morning, but arrive, in the volcano-strewn Kamchatka peninsula, on Tuesday morning.   Something to do with the International Date Line and the rotation of our blue planet that I still don’t fully grasp. Best of all, and after five years of travelling to Russia, it is heart-warming to see flight attendants with that classic forehead fringe beloved by Russian women.


Talking of blue planets, to the film. Again, from Paris to Vancouver, I dodged Hollywood fare and plumped for a Colombian film, ‘La Ciénega’. Yet another inspired decision because, like the Russian-set ‘Leviathian’, but considerably shorter, this film is a joy. Made on a shoestring, it had me properly weeping, and my neighbour squirming in his seat.

The film opens with a magnificent aerial sequence of rolling turquoise surf (drones are clearly making film-making more democratic and affordable). Because of the forward motion of the viewpoint, the waves appear to move backwards, an optical illusion. They seem to claw at the shore. The camera pans behind, to the murky lagoon (‘La Ciénega’), with houses on stilts, before arriving at the kind of busy highway I know well from Latin America. These roads suffer no pedestrians. In fact, they are without pavements. Crammed with logging and container trucks, roaring past in a blue haze of exhaust gas. Cheek by jowl with bustling restaurants and half naked toddlers, so much future roadkill.

Alberto, a young man, occupies one of these dirt-poor houses on stilts, accessible only by canoe. He lies contorted on a low bed, breathing assisted by a ventilator. The sides are open and the constant breeze ruffles his hair, mosquito net and curtains. His hands are clawed, his back contorted, his face palsied. His ribs stick out and his belly is concave. A mirror taped to a spatula, held between teeth, allows him views of lagoon and surf. The implication of the opening sequence, established within a minute, is clear; Alberto is trapped by his body, poverty, topography and logistics. Only his stout mother, played by the magnificent Vicky Hernández, allows his continued survival; his dependency is total, the tenuous electricity supply, on which his life depends, terrifying.

But if life gives you lemons……. Alberto is an artist, not by inherent ability, but by necessity. He draws what he observes in his mirror. Crayons gripped in his claw produce simple scratchings. And his love-life is clearly not DOA. A pretty neighbour takes a shine to him and turns him into her ‘project’, with foreseeable, tragic consequences. Childlike, she is unaware of the effect her short skirts have on the prone Alberto as she straddles him to pin up photos on the wall. Until Mum, fiercely loyal and afraid of where this is going, takes her aside and, in one of the most affecting parts of the movie, explains that Alberto, despite his condition, is still ‘a man, like any other man’. I was expecting some sort of ‘mercy f***’ scenario, but that doesn’t happen; the conclusion is more tragic.

The cinematography, given the miniscule budget, is stunning. Light pervades everything, bringing hope. Glossy sunsets are avoided and mostly the light is that unique tropical white light that is made less harsh by cloudy conditions, as if filtered. Many of the protagonists are clearly non-actors, which makes the film more authentic. Scenarios strike true chords. A male neighbour constantly hurls abuse across the water, but the reason is never explained. A mechanic ends up donating a car battery to Mum, trying to get Alberto mobile. Initially he insists on the full price. But eventually he accepts two fish and some coins, clearly the victim of some emotional mugging; the same way I feel when Christian Aid knock on my door for the envelope. Charity by arm-twisting, not innate generosity.

Only a cynic would suggest that the director, Manolo Cruz, was sniffing for an Oscar by telling a tragic personal history, along the lines of ‘Mar Adentro’ (‘The Sea Inside’) or ‘The Theory of Everything’.  He financed, starred in, and wrote this film; he even lost 20 kgs, a la Christian Bale, to represent the muscular wasting. The film was clearly a personal project. Having seen similar scenarios in Ecuador, where being poor and disabled makes life insupportable, I can sympathise with Alberto and understand the director’s objectives. In the West we have the support of healthcare and social systems that, despite our First World grouches, are first class in comparison. Despite the sub titles, I recommend the film highly.


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