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Director: Lucrecia Martel
Producer: Lita Stantic
Written by: Lucrecia Martel
Cast: Graciela Borges, Mercedes Moran, Juan Cruz Bordeu, Andrea Lopez, Sofia Bertolotto, Leonora Balcarce, Diego Baenas

Rating: out of 5

LA CIENAGA, the latest film by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, is less a movie to go see than an experience to undertake, time spent meandering about an area rather than a journey toward or even away from something. The title translates as The Swamp, but I think they made a good decision avoiding such a bad-horror-flick-evoking moniker by sticking to the more mysterious Spanish title (for those of us still sadly ignorant of EspaŮol).

Martelís previous documentary experience serves her well, as she draws us into the world of provincial Argentina (though Americans unfamiliar with the country are given no basis of comparison to establish its provincialityóthe press packet clued me in) dominated by steamy weather and two women. Mecha (Borges), the 50-something mother of a messy brood of teenagers on some sort of pepper plantation (the agricultural labor is only hinted at, never shown), and her cousin Tali (Moran), mother of four city kids, the eldest of which matches Mechaís youngest.

Uniformly excellent performances, along with angles selected to show us limited views of most scenes so that we can never quite see all of the action in the more frenetic segments, add to the voyeuristic sense of the piece. I imagine that Martel wanted to escape from the eternal problem/style of documentarians who find their subjects constantly talking to them or the cameraman instead of simply going about their lives.

The casual racism of the characters, especially Mecha and Joaquin (Baenas), adds to the stagnant feel that pervades LA CIENAGA. If you donít understand the difference between Argentinians descended from Europeans and the Indians they despise, but surround themselves with constantly as cheap labor in their homes and fields, you soon will. Past adultery, sexual tension between siblings, and one girlís hopeless infatuation with Isabel (Lopez), the stoic Indian housegirl add to the sense of banal evil, as each character fails to act outside of old patterns, some set before they were born.

Images of a bull trapped hip-deep in mud, struggling one day and rotting the next, or the swimming pool, attractive enough that everyone lays out by it, but so dirty that the children are forbidden to swim for fear of infection, provide help for the context-challenged, but even the scars that plague Mecha and her family fit so well into the mood and look of the film that they seem heavy-handed only in hindsight.

Doesnít sound like fun, does it? Yet LA CIENAGA paints such a vivid portrait of this world that I canít help recommending it to anyone with the patience to let this film slide around and envelop them, slowly and inexorably. Take someone you can really talk to afterwards, someone relaxed enough to have a long attention span, and let Martelís poetry, never beautiful, somehow compelling, take you to the backwoods of balmy Argentina.

óReed Oliver

hybridCinema Ratings Guide:

Take a pal and pay full price for both tickets.

Itís worth a full-price ticket.

Itís worth a matinee ticket.

Wait for video rental.

Check out the video from the library, if you must.

While we would never encourage anyone to destroy a video...

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