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Marshland (original title La Isla Mínima, directed by Alberto Rodríguez, 2014, 100min, Spain)


Reviewed by Charlie Sangster



Marshland might be dismissed as a sordid tale of grooming gone wrong and when did grooming ever go right? Gone wrong though, what if it plumbed not-so-new depths?


The camera lingers far above the creeks and dunes and swamps, white birds cross on strict bearings, sunlight sparkles on water loaded with detritus, big fish thrash in lagoons, what’s high and dry or exposed by the ebb, has the form of grey matter tinted for a neurologist’s slide. Crossing a river and zooming left, it finds two men, hot in jackets and ties, by their broken-down car, on a dirt track between two of the ditches that dissect immense flat rectilinear rice fields, the highest-yielding in the world, dry now and awaiting a still-labour-intensive harvest.


A tractor stops, they clamber into the trailer among the day labourers. Juan, older and dapper, enjoys the colours of the vast flocks of flamingoes and the sunset, as well as the fairground when they are dropped at the edge of a village, which is en fiestas. Pedro, younger, scruffy, takes everything in but isn’t happy with what he sees, it’s primitive and as for the crucifix in their room, decorated with photos of Hitler, Franco, Salazar and Mussolini, it’s an outrage.


It’s 1980, they’re detectives, sent from Madrid to the Guadalquivir delta near Sevilla, to find two teenage sisters, who have disappeared. The assignment is not a reward for either of them. Franco’s been dead for five years, since when Pedro has joined the police, and had the temerity to criticise a general, who’s against democracy, in a letter to the papers. Juan has been around for much longer and is rumoured to be on the take, not least from prostitutes: he’s philosophical about the assignment and scoffs at democracy. They quarrel. Pedro has had to leave his pregnant wife behind in Madrid.


While Pedro forensically questions the local Guardia Civil, Juan seems more interested in the excellent local fish and the sauce it’s prepared in. When they question the girls’ parents though, it’s Juan who connects with the mother, not without the minimum flirtation he feels is due. Fearing the worst and behind her husband’s back, she passes him charred pornographic negatives of the girls, negatives they hadn’t managed to destroy. She trusts him.


People come forward, a handbag is found. The father of the girls is shifty, though. Like all the villagers, he lives from hand to mouth and dreams of emigration. The rice harvest won’t tide them over for long and they resort to a variety of illegal dodges: poaching, smuggling and now pornography. It turns out that he's stolen heroin from the smugglers. It’s a precarious world of low expectations, fleeting pleasures, greed and strong passions, where Juan feels right at home. To Pedro, it all needs putting right, which, within the limits of his authority, is exactly what he intends to do. And things have gone very wrong: the raped, tortured and mutilated corpses of the girls have turned up and two earlier disappearances have come to light. It’s no gypsy knife fight by moonlight, nor a routine tragedy incidental to prevailing rough justice: it’s aberration.


The four girls had two things in common: Quini (Joaquín) the local heart-throb, and their desperation to get away to jobs on the Costa del Sol. With this menace in the air though, girls are still walking in along the roads, drawn to the vitality of the fiestas; their gait, self-possessed; their new-found sexuality, candidly manifest. The survival of a pagan erotic state of nature in rural Andalucía is still mooted today. In the Alpujarra, Bloomsbury’s Gerald Brennan was provided with a housekeeper whose duties quite naturally extended to sex. Here though, Quini, just a day labourer if good-looking, is a beneficiary. Under Juan’s angry questioning, he is unassailable in his knowledge of young female desire and there is no law against it (the age of consent is thirteen). He has a new girl in tow, Marina, a friend of the murdered sisters, and Pedro and Juan trail him. He picks her up on his motorbike every day after school. She straddles the pillion with the patent sensuality of imminent fulfilment.


Juan and Pedro have to stop Marina’s doom and Quini, who must be pimping these girls, is probably not the murderer. It’s a battle: they bond. Juan’s experience counts, as does his rapport with the villagers. He befriends a poacher they catch with a roe deer over his shoulder, and recruits him as a guide through the labyrinthine waterways and farm tracks, not without demanding his due, jugged venison. Bereaved mothers and fiancés confide in Juan and their stories upset him. Pedro meets the demands of a tabloid photographer from Madrid for gore, gruesome pictures of the corpses, in return for help in finding the point of sale of the rare film negative and in developing the overexposed image of another man on it, besides Quini. The photographer thinks he remembers Juan from the old regime though and asks Pedro about his past.


The photographer will come up with more on Juan’s career: membership of Franco’s secret police, a death, torture. Pedro will doubt it and then dither over confronting Juan with it: it would hinder the battle to save Marina, they’ve become comrades and isn’t Juan demonstrating his humanity every day?


Nevertheless, it’s Juan, the cop with empathy and humour, who was, in the photographer’s phrase, a member of 'Franco’s Gestapo'. And there are hundreds if not thousands of these people still loose in Spain today. His empathy is with the villagers, subjugated people lacking opportunities and denied justice, who make the best of things in true Spanish style, which could mean either putting on a brave face or decidedly opting for the life force. Almost the entire population of Spain used to live like this and Juan helped enforce it. It makes for a certain vitality in the face of indifference, here an indifferent if exuberant nature and a hegemonic agribusiness no less indifferent, not to mention society in general.


Indifference, however, does not amount to disconnection. Juan is dying and a psychic fishwife sees it, so do birds of ill omen. Juan isn’t just in a familiar milieu, he is inextricably caught up in the elemental: like the rest of us, you might say, only down here you can feel it and he does. There never was a régime more ancien than the pagan, as Marina has discovered. Violent death requires retribution, all the more so if it’s contra natura, and, to be fair, innocence, if noticed, deserves protection. Juan assumes the imperatives.


With the investigation paralysed and Marina in still greater danger, Juan has to pull out all the stops. The girls were all tortured: he knows about torture; what can he come up with to move a witness? Sympathy?


Pedro will keep his silence about Juan’s crimes against humanity. Will it be because Juan gives him all the credit for solving the case, to provide his newborn boy with a hero? Will Pedro’s sombre brush with the visceral and fated leave him speechless? Or has one torturer, at least, part-way redeemed himself?

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