Feb 2002 - Volume 10, Issue 1
Otilia in the Swamp
by Cynthia Steele
This year’s Women in Cinema festival features two wonderful films by younger Latin American directors: Otilia Rauda by the Mexican Dana Rotberg (b. 1960) and La ciénaga / The Swamp by first-time Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (b. 1966). The former uses a realistic narrative to question the options available to women in provincial Mexico, while the latter adopts a less traditional approach to critique the classism, racism and moral bankruptcy of contemporary Argentine society.
In Otilia Rauda, her third feature-length film, Dana Rotberg has freely adapted Sergio Galindo’s 1985 novel Otilia Rauda, published in English by the University of Texas Press in 1994 as Otilia’s Body. The protagonist’s old-fashioned first name carries echoes of the post-revolutionary Mexican countryside where the story is set (1920 - 1940). Her last name, Rauda, suggests "rara" or "strange, different." Her peculiarity lies in a perfect, voluptuous body paired with a flawed face. (In the novel Otilia’s features are described as ugly, while in the film her otherwise beautiful face is covered on one side by a birthmark.) Perhaps because of this unsettling juxtaposition, all the men in the Veracruz village, including the priest, find Otilia irresistible, and all the women shun her. There are three exceptions: Melquíades, a gentle brute who is devoted to Otilia; his curandera (folk healer) mother; and the madame of the local bordello. In order to save Otilia from sin, and at the same time clinch a business deal, her father marries her off to Isidro, a cowardly, money-grubbing policeman with a sadistic streak. Not only is their sex life loveless and alienating, but he promptly infects Otilia with syphilis, leaving her sterile.
After her parents’ death, Otilia fills the vacuum left by friends, children, and husband by using their abandoned farmhouse for sexual trysts with all the men in town. In doing so she seeks her own pleasure, and she relishes the power she has by using her body to punish her husband, her father and the entire community. Otilia follows in the Mexican cinematic tradition of the devoradora, the innocent woman who is betrayed and takes her revenge on men by becoming a femme fatale. (The epitome of this role was María Félix. ) However, Otilia’s sense of autonomy and power is shattered when she allows herself to fall in love for the first time. While the novel adopts three successive points of viewÑthose of Otilia, Melquíades, and Rubén, the outlaw who is her undoingÑRotberg’s film sticks with Otilia’s perspective, resulting in a more overtly feminist ending.
While Otilia Rauda adopts a feminist perspective, critiquing the gender politics of provincial Mexican society, La ciénaga adopts a female perspective to condemn the dysfunction and ethical stagnation of Argentine society. (This critique seems even more relevant in light of Argentina’s current economic and political catastrophe.)
This is a stunning directorial debut by Lucrecia Martel. In La ciénaga, two distant cousins, Mecha and Tali, are reunited after many years by a pair of domestic accidents that send them to the same hospital. While Tali’s working-class husband Rafael poses as a doting husband and father, we see that he is actually taking out his frustrations on her by being manipulative and controlling. Mecha’s bourgeois family, on the other hand, is a matriarchy, with a shrewish, controlling mother, and a weak, ineffectual father, Gregorio. Both parents are vain, narcissistic alcoholics. Of the four troubled children, we especially identify with the sensitive fifteen-year-old Momi. "Momi" is in the throes of rebellion against "Mommy" (in Spanish, "Mami"), who is planning to fire her nanny Isabel, on trumped-up charges that she has been stealing their sheets and towels.
Like Martel’s native Salta, the plantation "La Mandrágora" ("The Mandrake") and the nearby town "La Ciénaga" are located in a multiracial frontier region of northwestern Argentina, near the border of Bolivia. The white landowners depend heavily on servants and laborers, who are descended from the Indians but have lost their traditional cultures, to wait on them and grow their bell peppers for market. Race relations are not unlike those in the Deep South, and racial epithets fly freely: "indio," "china," and "colla." The family’s affectionate nickname for their daughter Momi is "chinita de porquería," "filthy little Indian." The close bond between Momi and Isabel is palpable; but even Momi resorts to racist epithets and accuses Isabel of stealing a necklace, when in fact it was she who stole it from Isabel. When the nanny withdraws in a funk, apparently pregnant and abandoned by El Perro, Momi tries to draw her out; but the class gulf is too wide.
In an alcoholic stupor, surrounded by catatonic friends sunbathing in the sweltering February heat, Mecha falls on her wineglass and cuts herself. Earlier, one of her sons has lost an eye in a hunting accident. We watch nervously as he and the white boys tramp through the dense woods with rifles cocked, putting a cow trapped in the swamp out of its misery, and as the Indian boys hack away at fish in a dam with their machetes, inches away from the white girls in their bathing suits. Convalescing in bed (where her own mother withdrew to spend the last two decades of her life), Mecha frets over whether the next plastic surgery in the family should be to remove her own scars, so she can go back to wearing the low-cut clothes she likes, or to give her son Joaquín the artificial eye he should have received two years ago.
The theme of dysfunctional families producing troubled children is most apparent in Mecha and Gregorio’s oldest son, José. Having inherited his father’s weak character and good looks, he spends most of his time charming women, making passes at Isabel the maid or even at his teenage sister Ver—nica. He roughhouses with her in bed, pees in front of her, tries to climb into the shower with her, and tries to make her jealous of his middle-aged lover in Buenos Aires. The lover, Mercedes, turns out to have been a classmate of his mother’s and a lover of his father’s. Talking with Mercedes on the phone, while seated on his mother’s bed, José slips and calls her by his mother’s name.
These hints of violence, incest and failed separation are set against a stunning natural landscape that proves to be anything but romantic. The opening shots of the Andes are breathtaking, but we quickly realize that the characters are not at ease in nature. This is underscored by the soundtrack, which features ominous rumblings of thunder, the hollow clink of ice in wine glasses, and the nerve-grating scraping of lawn chairs over the concrete patio; along with crass working-class cumbias and sugary middle-class tangos. The electricity flickers on and off, there is never enough ice, and the swimming pool is teeming with rotten leaves. As Mecha complains, this is a country where nothing works anymore. (Whether things did work at some point, or whether she has idealized it in her memory, is never explained.)
The dysfunction and fear of nature are underscored by the leitmotifs of scars and wounds, and of vicious dogs. The white boys speculate that their Indian servants must be screwing the hunting dogs, since they are so affectionate with them. Are dogs man’s best friend, or are they the savage "African rats" of the children’s urban legend, posing as stray dogs in order to sneak into the household and devour the cats? In Tali and Rafael’s cramped tract house in town, a barking dog on the other side of the wall gives their six-year-old, Luchi, nightmares after his sisters taunt him that it is really the "African rat." Isabel’s Indian boyfriend is also nicknamed "El Perro." Hunky forbidden fruit for the white girls to flirt with, he becomes a brutal avenger when José makes a pass at his girlfriend.
The film’s claustrophobic settings enhance the sense of immobility and suffocation. We see various combinations of family members languishing in bed together at the country house; and groups of children packed into a station wagon, or tramping through the overgrown forest, or cramped into the suburban tract house. Working-class Rafael brags that he is going to put in a swimming pool, like Gregorio; but his wife Tali reminds him that "his house" - not "their house" - isn’t big enough. The camera work reinforces this sense of claustrophobia; most scenes are close ups, shot from above, interspersed with shots with a hand-held camera.
To quote the director, "La Cíenaga is shot through with a sensation of constant discomfort, of unease. The film shows a society that has lost its traditions, but it has no way to buy itself the security that could replace them. A society with a brutal sensuality, skin deep, that at the same time lives with the vague hope that nothing with ever change, and with the terror that everything will keep repeating itself indefinitely."
Like Otilia Rauda, this is a story of tragedy waiting to happen. As Lucrecia Martel explains, "La Ciénaga doesn’t follow the rules of classic narrative. There is no hidden truth that the characters must discover, nor any cause-and-effect in the lives of Mecha’s and Talia’s families. More than a dramatic crescendo, the film proceeds through the accumulation of banal situations that often lead nowhere, but that sometimes lead to a fatal outcome."
When a local woman sees an apparition of the Virgin of Perpetual Comfort next to her water tank, and the event dominates the TV news, characters from all class and ethnic groups look to the miracle for hope. But as Momi tells her sister Verónica, "I went to where the Virgin appeared. I didn’t see anything."
Cynthia Steele is a professor of Latin Studies at the University of Washington