La Ciénaga: Criterion Collection (Blu-ray)

March 26, 2015 8 Min Read

Review by: Jake Keet

Plot: What’s it about?

La Ciénaga is Spanish for “the swamp.” The movie is named after the fictional area in Argentina that the film takes place. Calling this film a swamp is honestly a good way to look at this picture. I was initially drawn to the film because my wife’s best friend is from Argentina. My personal knowledge of Argentina extends to Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries, and what I have heard from my wife’s friend. When I saw that Criterion was going to release an Argentinian movie, I was pretty much on board out of sheer curiosity. Upon watching the film, I feel good about my choice to check it out.

La Ciénaga is a strange film in the sense that it does not follow any normal standard for plot. The basic story of the film would be that an older woman and her husband live in a house that is falling apart at the bottom of some large hills and mountains in Northern Argentina. The are drunks and don’t take care of themselves. They have children and grandchildren and animals and pest problems and a maid. The movie tries to follow all of these characters for just enough time that you can get a tiny glimpse into their lives. The plot of the film is fairly simple: People go about their lives as they normally would. Some people get into fights with one another. The maid is treated unfairly. The children do a series of dangerous activities with no supervision whatsoever (trying to hit a fish with a machete, running through forests with rifles.) A few people are attracted to each other throughout the film. There is a television perpetually on talking about people seeing visions of Lady Madonna. In other words, there is no real central plot, but instead a series of tiny vignettes that let you know what it must be like to be part of this dysfunctional family.

One of the most impressive things about the film is the oppressive sense of dread from the very first frame. The sound of what seems to be a perpetually brewing storm in the distance. The sounds of wild animals and gunshots in the forest. Lucrecia Martel blew me away with her attention to detail in the sound arena. Now, here is the one thing you should know going into La Ciénaga: you are going to like the movie only as well as you like experiments in form. The film is open ended and I am not sure that I know exactly what the filmmaker was going for in every scene. I know the way that the movie made me feel, and it did evoke some different feelings in me than most films. Mostly, the film made me uncomfortable. I look forward to watching it again now that I know exactly what happens. I am still grappling with whether or not I like the ending. Maybe that was what she was going for anyway. I would give the film a recommendation, with the caveat that it may not appeal to that many viewers.

Video: How’s it look?

Criterion has given the original source elements a complete 4K scan. The results are as good as to be expected. The film is never lacking in detail and the colors in the film at certain points are fairly vibrant. In certain points in the film the film stock became a little over saturated and grain became a little bit distracting. Fans and newcomers to the film should be extremely pleased with the job Criterion has done with this film.

Audio: How’s it sound?

The original master audio is presented in DTS-HD 2.0 surround. I loved this surround track. I wish that it had been originally recorded to use the speakers behind the viewer, but they did an exceptional job of using the entire sound field in the front channels. Very few films pay attention to sound like this film does. You get to hear every thunder clap, dog bark, ice melting, and faucet dripping. The film does not have any use of a soundtrack, although some scenes have music due to where they take place. I wish that more directors spent as much time playing with their sound field as Lucrecia Martel did in this film. This track kept me engrossed the whole picture. I really enjoyed this track, and so will you.

Supplements: What are the extras?

  • Lucrecia Martel – Lucrecia Martel gives a pretty vague sense of what she was trying to accomplish in the film. I enjoyed this feature, as it did provide a little bit of background for what the film was based upon. That said, she remains intentionally vague, which made me feel a bit shorted. Enjoyable for the most part.(19 min, 1080p).
  • Andres Di Tella – Director, writer, and Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema cofounder Andres Di Tella discusses Lucrecia Martel at length along with the political climate that shaped the new Argentinean film renaissance. I enjoyed this interview. (24 min, 1080p).
  • Theatrical Trailer – The original trailer for La Ciénaga. In Spanish, with optional English subtitles. (2 min, 1080i).
  • Leaflet – An illustrated leaflet featuring David Oubitia’s essay “What’s Outside the Frame”. (The author is a professor at the University of Buenos Aires, the Universidad del Cine, and New York University. His books include Estudio critico sobre “La Ciénaga” and El silencio y sus bordes: Modos de lo extremo en la literatura y el cine).

The Bottom Line

La Ciénaga is a strange mess of a film. As a parent, I could not stop fidgeting and cringing throughout most of the movie. That said, I think I will definitely revisit this one again soon, which speaks to the strange power in the film. Criterion did an excellent job of porting the video and audio. For a Criterion release, the supplements were rather limited. I would have liked to know more about the filming process of this unique film. If you are on the fence as to whether or not you should buy this film, I recommend renting it before your purchase.

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