Two police investigators from Madrid arrive in a rural town and find their hotel room adorned with a crucifix bearing photos of Hitler, Mussolini, and Franco. ‘Your new country’, Juan Robles (Javier Gutiérrez) snidely comments to his younger partner Pedro Suárez (Raúl Arévalo). It is 1980, five years after Franco’s death and two years after a new constitution, but Robles knows that Spain is still more of an oppressive dictatorship than the free democracy Suárez imagines. Sent to locate missing teenage sisters, the detectives are at odds with a closed community more concerned with the rice harvest than exposing crime, and director Alberto Rodríguez maintains tension by keeping them off balance. Shifting from stifling interiors to wide-open landscapes, Alex Catalán’s mesmerizing cinematography, which won one of the film’s ten Goyas (the Spanish Oscars) gives the commonplace an alien beauty.
Various leitmotifs run through “Marshland,” adding to the unsettled atmosphere. All the young woman yearn to move out of this godforsaken corner, making them especially vulnerable to promises of employment elsewhere. In addition, labor unrest forms a constant background element, adding to the sense of deep societal instability that makes the air ripe for exploitation and sadism. There is an uneasy relationship between Pedro and Juan, the former of the new generation, left-wing, honest and determined to be a part of a reformed police force but Juan is showily unattached, a cop of the old school quick to pummel an uncooperative witness or genially liquor up possible sources of information. As the investigation progresses, Pedro’s intensity flares into sudden violence, akin to Juan’s well-trained, almost blase recourse to brutality. Juan’s behavior is tied to his years as a cop under the Franco regime, but Pedro’s darkness, while partly stemming from his intolerance for the dictatorship, is also infected by the fascist society he grew up in, and escaping its legacy inside himself isn’t so easy.
The script uses the thriller format to lock together the personal, the social and the political in what adds up to not only a darkly ambiguous thriller but a portrait of an isolated community, and a whole society, in flux: a marshland. Here nothing is solid and everything is slippery, not least the distinction between cop and criminal.
It has won numerous awards in Spain but also the Audience Award for Best Film at the 2015 European Film Awards. Empire magazine named it as one of 2015’s ‘below the radar gems’.
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Venue: William Loveless Hall