Director: Alberto Rodriguez
Screenplay: Rafael Cobos, Alberto Rodrigues
Based on a book by: Rose Valland
Starring: Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo, Maria Varod
Running Time: 105 mins
BBFC Certificate: 15
The chemistry required to lift a film from being run of the mill to something that captures your imagination and keeps you riveted from first frame to last, is complex. It needs the interaction between director, script, actors, cinematography and setting to be a first-rate fusion of ideas, talent and technique, especially if the subject is as popular as the thriller.
Marshland gets it right. On the face of it, it’s fairly conventional – two police detectives are sent to a small town in Southern Spain, to investigate a series of brutal attacks on two teenage sisters. But director Alberto Rodriguez brings together a series of ingredients that result in a potent, exciting film that more than stands out from others in similar vein.
The phrase that springs to mind as you watch is Southern Gothic. Think of Walter Hill’s impressive Southern Comfort and you are heading in the right direction; though instead of steamy mangrove swamps, cinematographer Alex Catalán has superbly captured a world of flat, endless, sun-baked landscapes thick with reeds, studded with decaying buldings and criss-crossed by rivers and narrow, single-track roads.
Then there is the story and the setting. The BFI speaks of Southern Gothic films as being “a world of dark family secrets… religious hysteria and warped sexuality amid the sweltering heat of Bible Belt America…poverty, confusion in the face of modernity and the physical and social after-effects of slavery.” We certainly have confusion in the face of modernity, dark secrets, warped sexuality and sweltering heat: the only difference being that this is not the Bible Belt, this is an area of Europe which we may think of as being familiar but which is struggling with the ghosts of Spain’s recent political past.
The political context is a major strength of the film. It’s set in the early 1980s, at the end of the Franco era. Spain is going through the transition to democracy but as is always the case in such circumstances, radical change is embraced by some, rejected by others. In this particular instance, Andalucia – a former Franco stronghold – is more resistant to change than other parts of the country. Most people work to their own set of rules, paying scant regard to the new order.
The attitudes of the local population is reflected in the relationship between the two detectives. Though good professionals, they too represent opposite political views. Whereas Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) supports the return to democracy, his colleague Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) is a Franco-ist. As they follow leads and collect evidence into the attacks, not only do they antagonise the locals (who clearly have things to hide) but Juan reveals a past that implicates him in some very unsavoury goings-on on behalf of dictatorship.
The nature of a landscape where you can never be sure of your location (unless you’re a local) – revealed in a series of superb vertical shots – acts as a metaphor for the mistrust and suspicion that permeates the film. Roads lead who knows where: if you stray from them into the dense reedbeds, taller than a man, there are no landmarks to help fix your position, you can never be sure of your location or (by extension) who can be believed or trusted The whole thing is expertly marshalled by Rodriguez into an exciting film, with some excellent set-pieces and an ambiguous ending. He brings a freshness to a well-known genre with a film that, once it’s started, gets hold of you and never loosens its grip.
Marshland is released in selected cinemas across the UK on 7th August by Altitude Film Distribution.