‘La Cienaga’ is a Meditation on Dissipated Wealth

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La Cienaga (2001) is Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s debut; subtitled in Spanish, it is the story of an extended family sniping and worrying about minutiae while the larger problem of their country’s economic stagnation looms. Like most bourgeoisie, this family is unwilling to admit either their shallowness and spend most of their lives avoiding it. Unfortunately, the film is so good at making us hate these characters that it isn’t gratifying. (GPG: 3/5).

Review by Contributing Editor Giorgi Plys-Garzotto

La Cienaga begins with a woman falling and injuring herself at a family party. But before she agrees to visit the doctor, she insists on changing clothes to be presentable when driven into town. So begins the tale of an extended family living together in a beautiful Argentinean mansion and the nearby town. The characters in this film treat fashion matters with the same level of importance as matters of life and death, mirroring the way this film’s meandering plot depicts each scene with the same level of urgency no matter the subject matter or the stakes. In this sense, the meaninglessness of these people’s lives is taken into the form of this film, showing the viewer what it’s like to be part of the dissipated Argentinean upper class. However, this is one reason why it is not particularly enjoyable to watch La Cienaga.

Mecha, the injured woman, is the matriarch of this family, while Tali, another main character, is her less affluent cousin. Each of these women has a gaggle of children who continuously cause them to fret. Mecha’s oldest, Momi, seems to be in love with their housekeeper Isobel, who is accused by Mecha of stealing things around the house–it seems to be Momi who has a bit of a kleptomaniac streak. The film’s structure follows these characters in interpersonal dramas, shopping trips, and endless leisure time, taking specific cues from slow cinema to create a sense of waiting for something to happen in the viewer. Unfortunately, this tends to make the actual experience of watching the film very tedious, even though the viewer is aware that what’s going on onscreen is a well-executed critique of the Argentinean upper class.

One thing La Cienaga does well is incorporating metaphor into every nook and cranny of its narrative. Many scenes include babble of various kinds in a sound design motif with potent implications. In these scenes, whether one of the mothers is surrounded by children trying to get her attention about their play pretend games, or the family is all talking at once at the doctor’s office, or the grandmother is interviewed on the news by reporters (who all shout questions at once), there is often too much “going on” for much sense transpire. These people also seem obsessed with going to the doctor, continually looking for something wrong in their bodies when they are looking in the wrong place for the source of their trouble. In virtually every scene, there is something to dissect in such a way.

Finally, a word about the title of this film: La Cienaga means “the swamp.” This title refers not only to the tepid water of the family pool, which Isobel advises Momi not to swim in but also to this family’s symbolic state. And although in 2020, “the swamp” has a tiresome political meaning of its own for these Argentinean characters, it describes not just the terrain of their surroundings but also the economic downturn going on in their country. The title evokes this families’ image as literally decaying along with the former prosperity of their economic class. Again, this is a film with a lot to say and interesting ways to say it–but the pacing still makes it hard to stay engaged. 

Just as a swamp’s water festers with mold, these characters waiting around for something to happen to them are festering with their internal resentments and neuroses while avoiding the real issues. In many ways, this film is among Jane Austen novels; Larry David’s body of work including Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm; and HBO’s Girls in its depiction of rich people making drama that pleases them and ignoring the drama that doesn’t, namely the realities of their economic situation. While the Western canon is more likely to enshrine Larry David, Lena Dunham, and Jane Austen, Graciela Martel has created an appropriate critique of her own milieu. 

Perhaps the only reason I was less engaged with the film is because Larry David and Lena Dunham speak to my own culture’s dissipated bourgeoisie. In my examination of the film, I have brought to bear the knowledge of Argentinian culture that is not nearly as complete as my knowledge of white Western culture. I most likely would have found the film funnier and more engaging if I were more familiar with the cultural references, tropes, and narratives that the film deploys to make its points. Someone with more knowledge of Argentinean culture might be wild about it–and indeed, many are!

© Copyright FF2 Media Giorgi Plys-Garzotto (9/1/20)

Does La Cienaga pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test?

Yes! La Cienaga is about nothing if not women sharing their various day-to-day concerns—sometimes in regards to men but more often regarding their children, their health, and the weather.

Top Photo: Momi is one of the characters who is more aware of her family’s dysfunction.

Middle Photo: The young men of the family spend most of their time shooting at wildlife around the mansion.

Bottom Photo: Mecha, the matriarch, spends most of her time drinking.

Photo Credit: 4K Films.

Tags: FF2 Media, Turner Classic Movies

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Giorgi Plys-Garzotto
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Giorgi Plys-Garzotto is a journalist and copywriter living in Brooklyn. She especially loves writing about queer issues, period pieces, and the technical aspects of films.
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