With a loose narrative structure, first-time filmmaker Martel creates something wonderful with this tale of sticky heat and self-indulgence in northern Argentina. We follow two families through an eventful summer in which it’s so hot no one even wants to move. Mecha and Tali (Borges and Moran) are cousins. Mecha lives in a remote summer house that has seen better days; now everything’s falling apart, including her marriage to the slovenly Gregorio (Adjemian). No wonder they’re alcoholics. And their four teen kids seem to be in gruesome accidents or fights every day. Meanwhile Tali and her house-proud husband (Veneranda) have four young children who are no less accident prone. As attitudes and prejudices swirl, these lazy descendants of European ancestry struggle to find even a reason to care.
Martel brilliantly captures this life with a series of disconnected vignettes that combine to paint a startling picture of old world decadence … which is just a ghost of the real thing. Besides the reviled indigenous servants, nothing and no one works in La Ciénaga–the power flickers, the pool filters leave the water murky, everything conspires to injure them, yet their gringo doctor can fix anything with a bit of well-placed plastic surgery. The acting, cinematography, sound mix and structure are remarkably insightful and surprisingly involving. Especially since there’s no real plot to speak of. But it’s quirky from top to bottom–each scene is jammed with bits of humour and deadpan shtick that let us see the chaos that has resulted from centuries of imperialist decay. All without ever being remotely preachy or obvious in any way. In fact, those who need to hear the message will probably miss it altogether, instead feeling sorry for these condescending, self-absorbed rich people whose life just won’t go the way it should.