Marshland (La isla mínima)
Spain (2014) Dir. Alberto Rodríguez
Sometimes you read a plot summary or pick up on salient character points and think to yourself “seen it all before” but as this tense and dry Spanish crime thriller demonstrates it is possible to remake the wheel and take us for an exciting ride to a new destination all the same.
In 1980, while Spain is still in a state of political and social disarray after the death of Franco and the shift to democracy, two politically and ideologically opposed detectives – Juan Robles (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro Suárez (Raúl Aévalro) are forced to work together in the lazy town of Villafranco in Spain’s deep south to investigate the disappearance and subsequent murder of two sisters.
Naturally things aren’t as straight forward as the above précis might suggest and the investigation leads to the uncovering of a drugs ring and a salacious underground world in which teens of the town are either vilified for their behaviour or simply are trying to escape this oppressive and corrupt town for a better future.
Alberto Rodríguez uses this as a means to explore the political uncertainty of post-Franco Spain, using the paranoia which permeates through the conscience of the ordinary town folk as a tool to drive their actions, right or wrong. This also applies to the law and in the dichotomy of Juan and Pedro, whose chalk and cheese methods creates a tension yet delivers results.
Pedro as the youngest is the idealistic one who believes in the system and wants to work within its boundaries for a fair result. However he is also a modern thinker and was sent to Villafranco from Madrid as punishment for writing a letter to the press rebuking the public remarks of a high ranking general. Juan is the veteran and old school cop, happy to use excessive methods to get answers from unwilling witnesses, like a drink or ten despite his ill health and possibly was on Franco’s side in the past.
Yet aside from a few comments early on, this clash of philosophy and personality isn’t a problem and the duo work well together, establishing a formidable and cohesive team. It is while piecing their scraps of information together that they discover that the murdered sisters may have been abducted due to a careless act by their father Rodrigo (Antonio de la Torre), who found some heroin, sold it, and spent all the money, ending up stealing from his daughters to repay the angry drugs baron it originally belonged to.
From here the story twists and turns as a local young lothario Quini (Jesús Castro) appears to be a regular name to crop up in retracing the movements of the sisters, and subsequently of others girls who also have a desire to leave the town. Digging deeper and not only is the drug baron implicated but also a mysterious man in a white hat that Juan saw on a stakeout yet whose existence everyone irrefutably denies.
What makes the mystery and following of the procedural aspect of the narrative much more gripping to follow is the bucolic setting and the simple and single minded attitudes of the townsfolk, coupled with the pre-mobile phone/internet period. Such mod cons are integral in solving crimes and expediating the call for assistance and sharing of information in the modern world, and their absence is palpable here but not missed.
Rodríguez paces the film at a very brisk gallop after an ostensive sprint in the opening twenty minutes so nothing is lost in the detectives having to wait for reports, test results or conducting face to face interviews. Adding much to the tension is the sweaty Deep South setting – dry and dusty with modest architecture for a backwards town, dark arid nights where the insects come alive and the titular muggy Guadalquivir Marshes.
The political sentiment is not as overt as it might seem, the onus being on visual motifs and astute behavioural traits to reflect the looming spectre of Franco over the proceedings. The name Villafranco is a slight giveaway, whilst pro-Franco graffiti and other symbols of fascism adorn many of the sets. More subtly it is the actions and careful dealings of many of those involved in the case which are rife with little flickers of the deeply ingrained keeping their cards close to their chest in the presence of certain people.
In recreating the 1980’s Rodríguez has gone to great lengths to ensure complete authenticity, even down to using a muted colour palette to enhance the austerity of the fusty and cloying locations. Yet it is the stunning and creative camerawork which makes this a stunning visual treat. The opening aerial shot slowly moves to reveal what looks like the inside of the passage of the human brain, yet is in fact the winding marshlands although there is probably a metaphor in there somewhere.
With so many impressive components in place to make this an engaging and involving viewing experience the film’s strongest asset is the chemistry between the two leads, which drives the action as much as the sprawling story does. Javier Gutiérrez is suitably offhanded and gruff as Juan while Raúl Arévalo is miraculous in keeping Pedro’s temper in check when we can see he wants to explode like his partner does.
Of all the cast members only Jesús Castro I know from El Niño and just like in that film his piercing eyes and chiselled features strengthen his on-screen presence. Antonio de la Torre is compelling as the complex Rodrigo while a special mention is warranted for Nerea Barros as Rodrigo’s conflicted and emotionally tortured wife, a rare pure character in this whole tale.
We may have welcomed Nordic Noir and crime delicacies from this side of Europe into our lives here in the UK, but Marshland is a shining example of what the Southern half is capable of delivering. Compelling and intense from the onset this is a superb crime thriller of the highest calibre.