Latin American Film Festival Review: ‘Marshland’

Crime dramas, once a healthy portion of our cinematic diet, has all but completely migrated to the small screen. Now, from “The Killing” to “Broadchurch” to “The Bridge” to “The Fall,” there is a veritable glut of moody (and generically titled) crime stories overloading our DVRs and streaming queues. The problem for “Marshland” (also titled “La Isla Mínima”), a solid piece of genre filmmaking from Spain is that it doesn’t do a whole lot to distinguish itself from its televisual brethren. While I found myself engaged throughout the film’s 105-minute runtime, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’ve seen much of this before.

The film starts, as these things often do, with a missing girl (actually two, sisters). Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), a political idealist, and Juan (Javier Gutiérrez), a veteran detective with roots in the brutal Brigada Político-Social (essentially Franco’s gestapo), are sent to the small town of Villafranco located in the south of Spain near the beautiful Guadalquivir marshes. It quickly becomes clear that the girls have been murdered and that their killing is linked to past disappearances of girls in the area.

Pedro and Juan go about the usual detective business — checking leads, getting caught up in a few chases (via car and foot), and wending their way toward an ultimate confrontation with the killer. For all their supposed political differences, Pedro and Juan butt heads less than one might expect, even when Juan employs some decidedly old-school methods to extract info from uncooperative witnesses. If anything, Pedro trusts Juan a little too much.

Marshland is set in 1980, five years after the death of Franco, as the country is slowly transitioning toward democracy. “This country is a democracy,” a few characters point out at various points, as if reminding, or perhaps trying to convince, themselves. Juan’s dark past as an enforcer for the Franco regime is threaded into the film’s fabric, and in many ways Marshland is as much about Spain’s willful disappearing of its own past as it is about the disappearance of the two girls. The power structure that existed under Franco has scarcely been disrupted; the people committing crimes for Franco are now investigating and prosecuting crimes. And many of the same techniques — namely, torture — are still utilized and tacitly endorsed.

The observation that the cop and the criminal are not so far apart is an old one, even a trite one. But director/co-writer Alberto Rodríguez earns credit for framing this chestnut in starkly political terms, though the crime thriller on the film’s surface and the historico-political investigation submerged beneath never seemed fully integrated. In some ways, it feels like two unrelated stories stitched together by the film’s evocative title setting.

If Rodríguez seems like he’s shoehorning politics into a standard-issue thriller —something I have absolutely no problem with — it helps that he is a skilled genre filmmaker, keeping the story moving along at a brisk clip. Marshland’s signature setpiece, a stormy footchase through the marshes, is particularly effective, and Rodríguez’s inclusion of breathtaking aerial shots adds a visual stamp that much of the film, which basically resembles a BBC regional detective drama, lacks. In these shots, the vastness of the marshes, its diversity of terrain and its almost surreal beauty when viewed from above, suggests a national memory hole, a dumping ground for the bodies of Spain’s fascist past.

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