Marshland (La Isla Minima)
Director – Alberto Rodriguez, Screenplay – Rafael Cobos & Alberto Rodriguez, Producers – Mercedes Cantero, Jose Antonio Felez, Mercedes Gamero, Mikel Lejarza & Jose Sanchez Montes, Photography – Alex Catalan, Music – Julio de la Rosa, Visual Effects Supervisor – Juan Ventura, Production Design – Pepe Dominguez. Production Company – Atipica Films/Sacromonte Films/Atresmedia Cine/Canal+/AXN/Canal Sur Television Andalucia/Audio Visual S.G.R./Junta de Andalucia Consejeria de Cultura/Instituo de Credito Oficial
Javier Gutierrez (Juan Robles), Raul Arevalo (Pedro Suarez), Jesus Castro (Joaquin ‘Quini’ Varela), Salva Reina (Jesus), Maria Varod (Trinidad), Antonia de la Torre (Rodrigo), Manolo Solo (Journalist Case), Juan Carlos Villanueva (Juez Andrade), Ana Tomeno (Marina), Nedea Barros (Rocio), Lola Paez (Senora del Dyane), Angela Vega (Angelita)
It is the 1970s. In disgrace in Madrid, two police detectives, Juan Robles and Pedro Suarez, are sent to a tiny backwater village in the marshlands of Andaluc’a to investigate the disappearance of two teenage sisters. The two girls’ bodies are found having been mutilated, murdered and dumped in the canals. As Juan and Pedro uncover, this is part of a string of murders of other teenage girls in the area. Digging deeper, they discover that the girls had been coerced into a sex ring for powerful men in the area.
Marshland is a police procedural, a type of film that has largely vanished from cinema screens from the 2000s onwards. The last gasp of the genre was the serial killer thriller in the 1990s; the last theatrical film that one can remember in this vein was The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2009). Certainly, the genre has flourished on television. If anything, Marshland reminds a good deal of the recent revival of the form with the tv series True Detective (2014– ). The tall gangly, ultra-serious and by-the-book Raul Arevalo could be a slightly less intellectual version of Matthew McConaughey, while Javier Gutierrez’s far more physical, rule-bending and morally compromised partner could be the Woody Harrelson counterpart. Both Marshland and the first season of True Detective make a virtue of the 1970s setting and feature the exposing of the corrupt actions of those in power (even if the ending here leaves you a little confused as to why the girls were being killed).
The plot is solid and tightly wound as this genre goes, if in the end it is an average one. You cannot help but think if you were to transplant the story to take place in an American backwater, it would transpire as nothing standout for the most part. What however does make the film is its strong sense of time and place. The latter immediately strikes from the opening aerial shots down on the Andalucian countryside and marshlands, which stretch out like abstract geometric patterns. The story involves much pursuing of suspects through the marshes, fields, lakes and long single-lane roads that lead to nowhere on a uniformly flat terrain. It makes the marshland of the title into a physical presence that is almost its own character in the film. (Although the funny aspect that kept getting me was seeing the two characters trailing and eavesdropping on people through this landscape that is largely devoid of any features where you keep thinking that all that their objects of pursuit needed to do was just turn around and notice them there). The film is also strongly rooted in a time and place. The year is never specified but there is the backdrop of Spain in the aftermath of Generalissimo Franco and in the midst of labour union strikes. This makes for a very political milieu (and one you would almost never get in an American police procedural). Not to mention that this also leads to a final scene that is chilling in its morally blurred lines.
Marshland is the most acclaimed film so far for Spanish director Alberto Rodriguez who has previously made other crime dramas such as The Suit (2002), 7 Virgins (2005), After (2009), Group 7 (2012) and subsequently Smoke and Mirrors (2016).