La Isla Mínima (Marshland)* Review

*La Isla Mínima (Marshland) is only the third (or fourth) film that I have watched entirely in Spanish, without subtitles. This entry about La Isla Mínima includes the synopsis and review of the film.

The opening scene of Alberto Rodriguez´s film noir La Isla Mínima (Marshland) is a visual feast where the camera worships the all-natural but extraordinary beauty of Doñana National Park as if the park were its favorite muse. It is a sequence of aerial shots of the cerebrum-shaped marshland with its vibrant colors and textures in full display.

The opening scene of La Isla Mínima is a series of shots that look like this. Photo from islapavilia.com

The opening scene of La Isla Mínima is a series of shots that look like this. Photo from islapavilia.com

The surreally captivating locale is a deceptive mistress as it holds terrible secrets very close to its bosoms. One of these terrible secrets, the disappearance of two sisters in their late teens, is the reason why Madrid-based detectives, Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), arrive in Guadalquivir. It is September 20, 1980 when they arrive in the south of Spain that is still reeling from the effects of decades-long Franco regime as evidenced by the remnants of the dictatorship—the cross with photos of Franco and Hitler in a hotel room and “Viva Franco Vencimos y Venceremos” scribbled on the wall of an abandoned house, among others. The duo have a hard time convincing witnesses to come forward because locals are afraid to upset the status quo and are resigned to accept that misfortune will continue to befall their bucolic town.

As the plot moves forward with the fate of the girls and as other dark secrets of the area rear their ugly heads in police matters, the camera work by Álex Catalán shows the antithesis of the horrendous state of affairs in the swampland. Long shots of the fields, myriad of river channels and birds on flight continue to assault the senses to counteract the unsavory trajectory of the story. My favorite scene is in the 55th minute, when Juan wakes up hours after taking a bat on the face and sees the definition of a picture-perfect sunset. He is on the fringe of a canal where the orange sky touches its reflection on the water in an almost narcissistic way while thousands of birds fly above him and the same number of flamingos while the time away just a stone’s throw from him. This is the muse at the height of her tremendous power, just showing off.

Fortunately, the gorgeous shots are rivaled by the compelling characterization of Pedro and Juan. Pedro is soft-spoken, observant and seems too intelligent for his work. He is on the phone several times talking to his wife and telling her, “te echo de menos. Mucho.” (I miss you. A lot.) Juan is older and in bed with the unethical ways of the police system. As someone who served in the Franco regime, he has no qualms in using brute force during interrogation. He loves drinking alcohol as much as he loves flirting with women. Their first scene with the guardia civil succinctly summarizes the contrast in their personality. While Pedro asks pertinent questions about the missing girls and takes down notes, Juan continues to eat and eventually finishes dinner, drinks beer and smokes a cigarette without any question or comment. Despite his weaknesses, I find Juan the more endearing Juan (hehehe). I am not sure if I am imagining things, but there are scenes where he looks like a tortured soul albeit his rather open personality. It might be his indiscretions in the past that come back to haunt him and cause him to be pensive at times. And of course, who can dislike a person who takes his medicine with good beer instead of plain, boring water?

The movie poster of La Isla Mínima. The actor on the left is Raúl Arévalo (Pedro) and the other one is Javier Gutiérrez (Juan). Photo from huysuzbeyinsendromu.blogspot.com.

The movie poster of La Isla Mínima. The actor on the left is Raúl Arévalo (Pedro) and the other one is Javier Gutiérrez (Juan). Photo from huysuzbeyinsendromu.blogspot.com.

The crux of the story is quite simple—solving the case of the missing girls—but the movie goes beyond that by presenting layers of nuances that depict life in Spain in the wake of Francoism. The transition from dictatorship to democratic government is a difficult slow burn. Juan, a living example of the regime, reminds everyone around him of the horrors of the past, and his mere presence is enough to be leery of him and his intentions.  In general, there is a walk-on-eggshells attitude and certain behavior is still not acceptable (criticizing the military is one of them). Moreover, women are just starting to savor the taste of freedom. Younger women have more mobility and work options than their mothers. There is a pamphlet in the victims’ room that entices women to join the workforce. Part of it says: ¡Bienvenido al mundo laboral (Welcome to the world of work/labor force). There are photos of women as modista, secretaria, interprete, decoradora and fotógrafo (dressmaker, secretary, interpreter, decorator and photographer) which signal their emancipation. Lastly, just like any good cop movie, there is corruption, and it starts at the top.

La Isla Mínima combines beauty and tragedy in a skillful manner which results in a gratifyingly handsome movie. The direction, story, acting and cinematography have almost the same degree of success and do not shortchange the audience. The last shot, an aerial shot of the fields, is a poignant farewell to the picturesque island. It is a fitting last kiss to an unforgettable muse.

Stray Observations:

  1. Juan’s parting words are, “todo en orden, no?” Yes, Juan, everything is in order. For now.
  1. Juan and Pedro look very dapper. 🙂 Pedro remains unperturbed throughout the movie, even when he is lying on his stomach while fishing evidence out of a well. At night. Without ladder or rope. If there was a drinking game based on the number of alcoholic drinks Juan had in the movie, the audience would be rolling on the floor piss drunk midway through the film. Juan is my third favorite Juan from Spain.
  1. Police work 35 years ago must have been a nightmare. They had no gloves. They had no camera to take photos of the evidence. They used blue colored pencil to draw the sketch. The lack of sophisticated gadgets for fingerprint analysis, semen analysis and such worried me while watching the movie. I was thinking how easy it was to screw things up.
  1. The movie has a wicked humor. When Pedro showed the negative of the film to the periodista el caso (journalist), the latter made an inappropriate remark about the assets of girl on the photo. I find the change in tense of the verb witty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 thoughts on “La Isla Mínima (Marshland)* Review

    1. Thank you for the comment. 🙂 I followed your link and read your review of La Isla Mínima. I have been meaning to write a review of True Detective season 1, and I agree with some of the things you wrote.

      I watched it in Spanish because I am learning the language. 🙂

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