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‘Marshland’ is a chilling reminder that small towns are as dangerous as the big cities

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Marshland (original title: La isla minima)

Written by Alberto Rodriguez and Rafael Cobos

Directed by Alberto Rodriguez

Spain, 2014

Reprimanded by their superiors for a previous folly, Madrid-based homicide detectives Pedro Suarez (Raul Arévalo) and Javier Gutiérrez (Juan Robles) are dispatched to the countryside to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls in a small town that lives and dies by its agricultural produce. The year is 1980 and the Francisco Franco dictatorship came to a close only a few years ago following the tyrant’s passing. Spanish democracy is still in its infancy, remnants of the violence and fear that governed the land for years still remain. As Pedro and Javier collect information as to the whereabouts of the girls, it becomes painstakingly clear that this little town, surrounded by marshland, is wrestling with a few demons of its own, as are the two protagonists who come from very generations (Javier being the elder) and do not always share the same views on what constitutes right and wrong.

Earning accolades galore in its native Spain, Alberto Rodriguez’s Marshland is the sort of neo-noir that brilliantly encapsulates much of what makes the famous film movement so exciting whilst embracing local and historical flavours, the latter ripe for exploration given its importance in 20th Spain as the nascent post-Franco era. Tensions continue to brew in all sorts of facets as disparate philosophies struggle to find common middle ground. In the town where Marshland’s story is set, the economic hardships afflicting the nation have begun to hit home. Jobs are scarce and the youth, especially the teenagers, see no future in the region and long to flee their so-called backwards town and make something of their lives in the larger cities. The old ways battle against the new, people are desperate to make a living and now beautiful young women are being discovered in the water, bloodied, bruised and butchered.

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Enter Pedro and Juan, two men who could not be more different even if they tried. Pedro, the younger of the two, is defiant in the face of the mood that reigned during Franco’s regime. Injustice is something taken terribly seriously, every little suspected act of corruption, however slight, has him bristle and argument in favour of law and order. His no nonsense attitude does him no favours with the local police force that still harbours sentiments that would have passed as perfectly normal not so long ago. Compounding his stress, to say nothing of the fact that his wife back home is expecting any day, is Juan’s more old school methods of extracting information of suspected criminals, or to punish people that have made stupid mistakes that worsened their condition. Ironically, Juan easily comes across as the uncle that can be the life of any party. Charismatic, humorous, a good drinker, the detective very much enjoys his job, the problem being that he makes use of his official badge to employ more drastic detecting skills, such as beating clues out of people.

The tension in the town mirrors that handicapping Pedro and Juan’s partnership. The locals are frustrated by the lack of opportunities, voicing their concerns rather loudly, with those offering the few jobs available having to sternly take control of the situation. On the flip side Pedro and Juan can never see eye to eye, in part because of some of their personal natural reactions to the world around, in part because of the cultures through which each grew into an adult. Pedro is of the generation ready to fight for a new Spain, one that shuns its dark, recent past in favour of a more just society. Juan, on the other hand, stills holds onto his own past, giving into certain inhibitions that did him wonders as a brutal crowd control patrolman back in his younger days when violence ruled, no matter the cost.

Spending so much time with these two fascinating characters that represent opposites sides of a coin would be fruitless were the actors hired to incarnate them not up to the task. Thankfully, both Raul Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez are excellent as the dubiously paired investigators. Gutierrez in particular is extremely easy to like, bringing the type of winning charm that one can easily liken to seasoned, old school cops that have been around the block for a while and have discovered a joy de vivre to fight the boredom. His likability, as well as a gruesome medical condition that has him occasionally cough up blood, make the revelation of his past all the more controversial and harder to swallow for the audience. For the better part of the picture one finds Juan amiable and wants Pedro to lighten up, whereas the truth is far more troubling.

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Director of photography Alex Catalan’s name is equally deserving of praise. Visually, Marshland captures the beauty and horror of the place where the murders transpire. There is a series of overhead shots from far, far above that make the people and automobiles down below impossible small. Just as the people in the town feel theirs is a lost cause and just as Pedro and Juan deem they are not where they should be, such jaw-dropping angles truly demonstrate just how infinitesimal they are out there in the marshes. What’s more, said shots are so beautiful it is almost impossible to believe, with the green and yellow of harvest fields dancing with the blue of the nearby water streams. Even the less ostentatious shots convey an unnerving, lugubrious aura that infests every building, room, open field and time of day. Sunsets, sunrises, clear sky days and rainstorms, regardless of what the conditions are, the lighting and camera angles continuously send warning signs that danger lurks around every corner.

Marshland also proves one of the more smartly paced police dramas of the past few years. Rather than pile on a series of incongruous episodes or side characters, director Alberto Rodriguez effortlessly builds tension and mystery through every detail presented to the audience. There is nary a useless scene in the film. Whether it be to set a tone (which itself is an oft-overlooked method of telling a story. Not everything has to revolve around the plot), offer a clue about the mystery or further delve into the strained relationship between Pedro and Juan, Marshland consistently delivers riveting scenes.

Director Alberto Rodriguez presents a neo-noir of the highest order. Its story is gripping, oozing with undertones of violence from a irreparable past, its lead characters are endlessly fascinating, and its sports a look that can only be described as ‘beautifully scary’. After winning countless awards and immeasurable praise in Spain, Marshland is finally experiencing a worldwide release, albeit in limited form. Those lucky enough to be presented with the opportunity to check it out would do well to give it a try.

-Edgar Chaput


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