Thunder rumbles. Its low-frequency wavelengths travel like a palpable hum tumbling through space. A rifle is shot—a high-frequency sound pointedly tears through the sonic residue of thunder before cascading out as reverberation. Birds caw. Ice clinks. A strident noise adds to the polyphony that grows voluminous. This is the opening aural texture of Lucrecia Martel’s debut film La Ciénaga (2001).
The vocal subtropical rainforest of Salta composes La Ciénaga’s soundscape. Lucrecia Martel was born in the northwestern city of Salta in Argentina, and provincial nuances indelibly mark Martel’s filmmaking vis-a-vis sound; making her one of the most influential auteurs of New Argentine Cinema as her films are intimate portraits of Argentinian life. Less of a unified movement and more of a generational collection of filmmakers, New Argentine Cinema was shaped by the dictatorship of the 70s, the economic crisis of the 80s, and the neoliberalist policies of the 90s. It was an aesthetic shift in filmmaking that started in the 1990s when filmmakers moved away from theatrical productions emulating Hollywood and towards acute depictions of idiosyncratic life in Argentina. Challenging the preponderance of traditional filmmaking styles, creators like Martel demonstrated alternative approaches to storytelling.
Martel’s filmmaking style of meandering storytelling subverts the five elements of traditional narration: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, resolution. She refers to the pervasiveness of this structure as hegemonic narration, stating, “This narrative model considered to be natural, inherent to humanity, dismisses as intellectual any attempt to move away from the dramatic arc, the hero’s journey, the conclusive ending, the need of protagonists and antagonists.” It’s a model that portrays time as a linear motion, working to bring an end to fruition.
The linear concept of time—that starts with a beginning and moves towards an end—is a Judeo-Christian theological understanding of time. The Bible narrates the beginning and tells of the end. The notion of the future as something that lies ahead and which we progress towards is particular to Western culture. Future is a temporal realm of wishes and desires and promised resolutions. And can easily usurp attention. Martel turns to sound to challenge the hegemonic narrative that upholds linear time because a story guided by sound holds the viewer at the precipice of understanding—the fleeting temporality of sound forces the viewer to partake in the now, redefining how a story transpires through time.
La Ciénaga drops the viewer into the sounds of a middle-class family’s summer life without expository information—emulating Martel’s mother’s tendency to mention unknown people in conversation as if they were intimate family members. Without introductions, we are placed into their world where time is stymied in the present. And the present is close-up shots of soporific bodies lounging by a putrid pool filled with algal water not meant for swimming. Strident sound comes from adults dragging their beach chairs with zombie-like enthusiasm across porous cement. A storm congregates above. Their limp hands hold glasses with wine that grows translucent as ice melts. Repetitive clinking antecedes Mecha (Graciela Borges), the family matriarch and drunk, filling her wine glass, tremors moving through her hand. Mecha then falls, severely cutting herself on a glass. She lays in her blood. Apathetic adults do not move.
Mecha’s lifelong friend Tali (Mercedes Morán) visits with her children as Mecha convalesces in bed where she barks orders at her maids, who she treats with overt racism. Characters sloth around in bathing suits and underwear as stifling heat permeates the estate. Lounging and laying, the dissipation of energy is audible as phones ring uninterrupted, thunder rumbles, showers run, faucets trickle, dogs breathe laboriously, and shotguns send parrots squawking. The only mention of a future is when Mecha and Tali talk about driving to Bolivia to buy cheaper school materials. The past doesn’t surface in conversation, leaving the present to ground the narrative. But La Mandrágora is a memory of wealth, mired in the decrepitude of an estate where nothing works and nothing happens, where generational mobility is as stagnant as their swampish pool.
La Ciénaga does not unfold linearly. Its sprawls as the camera jumps from character to character without establishing shots. Martel likens the circuitous narrative of La Ciénaga that is like a visual train of thought to the stories her grandmother orated during la hora de la siesta (nap time) that were without beginning, middle, and end. They are similar to the phone calls she has with her mother that unfold interminably without an endpoint and clear intentions. It’s a style of narrating where the unfolding happening in the now takes precedent over where the story is going. And La Ciénaga holds the viewer in the now by creating a soundscape that demands the viewer’s attention: The obtuse presence of hyper-real sounds staves of the future with its beguiling pretense of a resolution. Engrossing the viewer in the minutiae of unproductive pursuits impedes mental wondering. But the absolute lack of escapism that inhabiting the present produces can be exhausting and discomforting.
Moving between an ensemble of characters, La Ciénaga resists cohesiveness by becoming many narratives where one isn’t more important than the other. The constant movement between storylines perpetuates an underlying uncertainty, heightened by ambiguous relationships: José (Juan Cruz Bordeu), Mecha’s oldest son, arrives from Buenos Aires, where he is having a triste with his stepfather’s mistress. At La Mandrágora, Jose’s behavior towards his younger sister Vero (Leonora Balcarce) teeters between innocent play and sexual innuendo. He wrestles and dances with her. He slips his foot underneath the shower curtain, nudging her foot as she washes her hair. Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), another of Mecha’s daughters, demands attention from their maid Isabel (Andrea López). It is unclear if Momi’s relentless need for Isabel’s affection stems from sexual desire or maternal longing since Mecha treats Momi with disdain.
Claustrophobic communality sieges the house where characters move from one room to another, from one bed to the next, laying and gathering on any available surface. Mecha and Tali’s younger sons (Mercedes Morán) are the foil to the pervasive stupor. Their galvanic energy courts danger as they shoot rifles in the mountains and flail machetes in murky rivers to catch fish. Scars and cuts scrimshaw their arms. One of the boys is missing an eye. The other has a tooth sprouting from the roof of his mouth. Martel says she introduces monstrosity in her characters to force viewers to pause and look at what they see. To observe what appears to be a child or a mother, allowing her characters to challenge cinematic archetypes. Tearing through the forest with cocked rifles and barking dogs, another type of claustrophobia settles in around the young boys. The deafening forest sounds are as unsettling as the camera’s erratic movement that builds tension before cutting away. The visual ellipsis leaves the viewer to hear the outcome they cannot see—sound activates a dimensionality that carries the story beyond the screen where disaster seems imminent.
Engendering a world where sound is more demanding of our attention than visuals, listening becomes more important than seeing. Rather than looking ahead towards an end, La Ciénaga enmeshes us in an aural world that sprawls in many directions. Extracting information through listening takes more time than processing information through sight. Sound as a narrating technique requires duration. And experiencing duration can be mistaken for wasting time. In a way, the characters of La Mandrágora estate do waste time. But time is only wasted if there is somewhere else they should be or something else they should be doing. But Martel’s emphasis on the now eliminates the future, and with it, all notions of “should.”
“Lucrecia Martel, to Contest the Deafness of the Gaze | MoMA.” The Museum of Modern Art, http://www.moma.org/calendar/events/5566. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.
Oubiña, David. “La Ciénaga: What’s Outside the Frame.” The Criterion Collection, http://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3444-la-ci-naga-what-s-outside-the-frame. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.
“To Cast Doubt on the Assumed Nature of Things: An Interview with Lucrecia Martel.” Post, 11 Sept. 2019, post.moma.org/to-cast-doubt-on-the-assumed-nature-of-things-an-interview-with-lucrecia-martel/. Accessed 24 Mar. 2021.