Written by Rafael Cobos and Alberto Rodríguez
Directed by Alberto Rodríguez
The disorientating topography of the Andalusian swamplands provides the backdrop for Marshland, an atmospheric murder mystery from Spanish director Alberto Rodríguez. It opens to a series of spectacular aerial shots, taken from directly above, which transform the landscape into something alien and organic, like brightly coloured brain tissue. Birds and agricultural workers moving across the surface only emphasise the strangeness of the territory, showing how limited the perspective is from ground level. In theory, seeing the bigger picture should add clarity – the film returns to these shots at moments of revelation – but, rather than doing so, it exposes the gaps in the characters’ understanding and seems to suggest that some puzzles are too big to solve.
Marshland is set in 1980, a time when Spain is still emerging from the Franco era and adapting to the new democratic regime. Detectives Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) and Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) are sent from Madrid to the small, backwater town of Villafranco del Guadalquivir, where two teenage girls have disappeared during a local fiesta. When they arrive at their hotel, they are sent to a shared room, where they find a crucifix on the wall containing photos of Franco and Hitler. It is clear that the town is still living in the past, its residents unlikely to be concerned about a couple of missing girls with “a reputation for being easy”.
The political context permeates every aspect of Marshland, particularly as it explores the connections between misogynistic sexual violence and the corruption that endures in the upper stations of the local government. The two detectives also have contrasting political leanings – Pedro is liberal and honest, desperate to get back to the capital where he can play an active role in reforming the police force. Juan, on the other hand, has no qualms about extorting money, chasing women and using violence. Concealing a dark past and painful illness, he is more than happy to work in an environment where there are fewer eyes and greater leeway. The detectives’ differences put strain on the investigation – even when they are together, they are essentially operating alone.
With few leads to go on, they visit the girls’ parents, where they encounter more resistance. The father, played by a gritty Antonio de la Torre, is non-cooperative and withdrawn, either too ashamed of his daughters’ behaviour or hiding something more serious. However, the mother (Nerea Barros) proves more helpful, handing over some damaged but revealing negatives as a starting point. There is little original in the way the plot unfolds – it relies on a familiar sequence of obscure tip-offs, fortuitous discoveries, forgotten crimes and red herrings – and the resolution leaves several questions unanswered. However, the narrative is superbly situated in its specific time and place, with the new values and economic opportunities causing girls to risk more than they should to escape their conservative lifestyles.
Ultimately though, it is the direction and Alex Catalán’s cinematography that elevates Marshland into more than a formulaic genre piece. Catalán perfectly captures the volatility of the landscape and the disorientation felt by the characters as they traverse the unnavigable roads and hidden shortcuts. It becomes a psychological and political as well as physical space, encompassing the confusion felt by the detectives investigating the crime, as well as that of the nation as a whole. There are also beautiful low-angle shots of wild birds, which frequently appear as ominous omens and, above all, those spectacular aerial sequences, which provide space to reflect on what is unfolding on the land below.
– Rob Dickie