A police thriller in the dark heartland of ’80s Andalusia, Alberto Rodríguez’ Marshland is a gripping and stylish study of Spain both then and now.
Bad Landsby Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers (Yes, really)
Filmed in the fens of the Doñana National Park, Alberto Rodríguez’ Marshland is first and foremost a visual treat. As the titles roll, it kicks off with high overhead vistas of sand dunes and marshes that turn the landscape south of Seville into an eerie mass of murky streams and brain-like swellings with each god’s-eye-view shot brought to life with tiny flocks of birds. And it doesn’t stop there – with pitch-perfect production design and costume that recreate post-Franco Spain with a touch of the Wild West and carefully planned sequences that frame the action through the rainy windscreen of our heroes’ Chrysler or see them wandering the wetlands in the fading light of dawn and dusk. But with Rodríguez resurrecting Spain’s buried past, is La Isla Minima anything more than just beautiful imagery?
It’s 1980, five years after the death of Franco, and police detectives Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) have been called to southern Spain to investigate the disappearance of two teenage daughters. With unemployment high and prospects low in small-town Andalusia, Estrella and Carmen have been seduced by an unknown man in exchange for a job at a hotel in Malaga. Their mutilated bodies are found in the marshland, and it’s not long before Juan and Pedro realise these killings are an annual occurrence – coinciding with the fair’s arrival in town – when a drunk local villager complains that his girlfriend Beatriz didn’t commit suicide, as the Guardia Civil claims, but was actually murdered. All signs point towards Quini (Jesús Castro), a good-looking local boy who lures schoolgirls, including local girl Marina (Ana Tomeno), to a hunting lodge in the marshland before handing them over to a mysterious man with a straw hat and a white Dyane 6 car.
From its period setting and a soundtrack that includes Baccara’s Yes Sir, I Can Boogie, you might expect La Isla Minima to be Spain’s answer to The Secret In Their Eyes, lifting the veil on its Francoist past. And while there are some pointed moments, such as an all pervading atmosphere of fear and secrecy, the crucifix that Pedro takes off the hotel room wall, and his suspicion of Juan for his collaboration under Franco’s regime, Marshland doesn’t reveal so much about the transicíon as it does about the present – with its unemployment crisís that turns small Andalusian villages into ghost towns as its inhabitants are forced to leave for a better life. And the villain of the piece is, of course, the local industrialist, profiteering and driving down the prices of the daily wage. For, despite the beauty of its location, it’s a dismal Spain, shrouded in dust and fury. Like Deadwood.
But while Alberto Rodríguez’ film makes reference to the status of women, who under Franco were equivalent to children, here they are still merely onlookers – not exactly passive, but only furtively going behind their masters’ backs. And they’re victims too – mutilated, abused and destroyed. While men are both protectors and perpetrators, as Juan and Pedro do battle with the community, as they attempt to uncover the male killer in their midst – the traditional police thriller template that since film noir has seen women reduced to victims and bystanders.
With all the hallmarks of a Scandinavian TV series, La Isla Minima is a powerfully visual and enjoyably atmospheric thriller. So it’s no surprise it was lauded with nine Goyas at the 2014 awards ceremony. And while it leaves the viewer somewhat in the lurch with its rain-washed denouement, Alberto Rodríguez’ Marshland makes up for its generic, archetypal shortcomings with visual style in spades. And while it casts doubt on the secret former lives of public institutions, it’s also curiously nostalgic – enough to show both Spain and the world how far it’s come.
Marshland is released on 7th August 2015 in the UK