Two homicide detectives, Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) are sent to a remote Spanish town to investigate the disappearance and murder of several teenage girls. As they pursue the serial killer the secrets of Juan’s past begin to surface and it becomes clear that his ties to the former Francoist regime may have been closer than Pedro first believes. As they race to stop the murder of any more girls the differences of the two detectives begin to assert themselves.
The Critics Said
“The boundaries between criminality and legality are anything but clear in this powerful portrait of the fault lines of post-dictatorship Spain.” – Maria Delgado, Sight & Sound, 2015
“[Alberto Rodríguez] leads us out into the wilds and back again, throwing in the odd fist fight and car chase to keep things ticking along. The result is a taut, visually sumptuous and hugely entertaining thriller.” – Tom Huddleston, Time Out, 2015
Original title: La isla mínima
Director: Alberto Rodríguez
Writers: Alberto Rodríguez, Rafael Cobos
Starring: Javier Gutiérrez, Raúl Arévalo
Runtime: 105 minutes
Marshland, the sixth feature film by Spanish director Alberto Rodríguez, is affected by an air of pessimism expected of grim detective dramas such as this but which is caused not only by the callousness of the crimes that drive its story but by the legacy of a military dictatorship that lies like a bad seed at the heart of Spain’s recent history. Set in the early-1980’s, shortly after the end of the military regime, the film contains all of the expected tropes of popular crime drama but every aspect of its story appears tainted by the grip that Francisco Franco holds over the country, even in death. For all its metaphorical layering though, Marshland is, first and foremost, a tightly-plotted, vividly executed detective thriller.
The tension between past and present is most visible in the relationship between the two homicide detectives assigned to investigate the deaths of several teenage girls in a small Spanish town. Between the personalities of Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) are fought the same conflicts afflicting a country transitioning from dictatorship to democracy. Juan is an aggressive, temperamental bully prone to womanising and witness intimidation, a lurid example of the former regime’s authoritarianism and tendency to violence. Pedro, on the other hand, is a moderate family man, the embodiment of Spain’s blossoming post-Francoist liberalism. It is a staple of detective fiction to place two contrasting personalities in close proximity but in this case history has been written into these characters intelligently and with subtle implications towards the film’s plot.
These confrontations between past and present make themselves known elsewhere in the film, in the way that the investigation of these murders is obstructed by authorities that still retain the corrupted power accumulated over previous decades. It is visible in the pro-Franco graffiti that has survived on the walls of buildings otherwise fallen to ruin. It is intricately woven into the stunning overhead shots of the Spanish landscape that open the film, those based on the photography of Hector Garrido; the country’s topography is here scrutinized, the marshes and tributaries that weave across the screen resembling bodily organs placed under the microscope except here the malignancies beneath the surface are human corpses and the secrets attached to them.
The plot of Marshland is paced superbly, a convincing string of digressions and double-backs building towards a climax that we should see coming but which eludes us just as the man behind the camera eludes Juan and Pedro. Interestingly, as their investigation threatens to turn cold the detectives begin to adopt the traits of one another; Pedro engages his aggressive side as Juan nurtures his compassion. There is a feeling that one is trying to atone for the past while the other is trying to protect his future; the final scene confirms to which of the men these priorities belong. Most convincingly, for whatever reason, these men care, therefore we do. Marshland is not only an impeccable genre film but a deep character study and a pertinent piece of historical fiction.