I need to pay more attention to South American cinema. On the evidence of the last several South American movies I've seen, there's an astonishing and vital cinema down there that I know next to nothing about.
Take, for instance, La Ciénaga (2004), which announces its director, Lucrecia Martel, as a major filmmaker. A portrait of the bourgoisie in decline, it follows two families summering (wintering?--how do they measure this in Argentina?) at a crumbling vacation home. Martel has no use for exposition, so the viewer is thrown into the midst of thing and left to figure out the the relationships on his or her own. At the head of one family, is Tali, riding herd over four kids who are getting into the kinds of things kids get into during the summer. At the head of the other is her cousin, Mecha, who along with her husband, are a the ugly middle class personified: drunken, disagreeable louts who abuse the help. The town where the vacation home is located is named "La Ciénaga," "The Swamp." The strongest visual manifestation of this name is the brackish swimming pool where we first see our characters lounging.
Martel and her cinematographer, Hugo Carace, completely ignore the traditional Hollywood dance of eyes and faces. She films this as a succession of fragmented body parts. The eccentric framing of her scenes generates a palpable feeling of hot house gothic even though, on its surface, this is mainly a slice of life kind of movie, focused in the main on quotidian details. It's an impressive balancing act, but she was just getting warmed up.
Martel's second film, The Holy Girl (2004), is a deliriously overheated melodrama, and a creepy one at that. The director's eccentric mise en scene is back, this time focusing on faces, and moved in much, much closer. Martel packs the frame with humanity in a literal sense. It sometimes feels crowded with bodies, a feeling exaggerated by the intimate closeness of the camera to faces. The movie itself follows Amalia, a religious teen age girl, who is molested by Dr. Jano, a doctor visiting her family's hotel for a medical conference. She vows to save his soul, with disastrous results. This is complicated by her mother's friendly, almost romantic relationship with Dr. Jano. In some of its details, this plays like a pubescent version of Fatal Attraction. But the movie itself is better than that.
For one thing, it's frame after frame of arresting images. For another, it detonates one's preconceptions with those images. The molestation of Amalia takes place in public, as Dr. Jano pushes his crotch against Amalia from behind while the both of them are in a crowd listening to a theramin demonstration. This happens twice. In the second one, Martel's camera watches their hands, and Amalia's hand twitches backward, as if she wants to take Dr. Jano's hand in hers.
It should be noted, I suppose, that this is not exclusively a movie about obsessive sexuality, it's also about sexual awakening, which significantly muddies the moral universe of the movie. A key scene finds Amalia masturbating in bed. The shot is characteristically intimate and characteristically eccentric:
Sometimes, this level intimacy is uncomfortable to watch. Sometimes, Martel's tendency to pack the screen with human beings obscures the space and geography of the scene. Both of these qualities are deliberate effects on the part of the filmmakers. Martel wants the audience to be uncomfortable. In both cases, they mark the film as distinctively belonging to a singular artistic sensibility.