Wading through Marshland in the search for atonement

Wading through Marshland in the search for atonement

Joyce Glasser reviews Marshland (La Isla Minima)

Marshland (La isla minima) is a tightly directed, tense and atmospheric thriller that seems to aspire to something greater than it delivers. The unique setting in the marshlands of Andalusia and the relationship between two ideologically opposed Madrid detectives are superb. The film, however, which resembles nothing if not the series, True Detective, gets bogged down by that familiar staple of television series and films alike: the grisly hunt for a serial killer.

Director Alberto Rodriquez (who co-wrote the screenplay with his regular co-writer Rafael Cobos) and cinematographer Alex Catalán minimise this shortcoming with their stunning cinematic language. The visceral location shooting in the Guadalquivir Marshes (including very effective aerial shots) is supported by the perfect casting. Pedro Suarez (Raúl Arévalo) is a cop with Republican leanings and a pregnant wife waiting for him in Madrid. Juan Robles (Javier Gutiérrez), is a veteran cop who was doing more than protecting the public under Franco’s dictatorship.

As in True Detective, the rapport between the two cops is distant but professional. It is 1980, and while the divisions that began in the Spanish Civil War are still running deep on both fronts, Franco is dead and Spain has been reunited under a fledgling constitutional monarchy for the last five years. The country has been left to bury the hatchet, but never has, and certainly hadn’t in 1980. Pedro and Juan are focusing their efforts on finding two teenage girls who have disappeared. In the corrupt and un-cooperative environment where the locals hold the Madrid cops in contempt, other girls have gone missing with no investigations. But one family wants answers.

Upon arrival at their basic hotel, Pedro speaks to his wife in hushed tones and then decides to retire early, while Juan has a hearty dinner. Juan seems to have no attachments other than those he makes in the bars he frequents. His penchant for alcohol, greasy food, late nights and loose women, despite a serious health problem, marks him as a man wary of life and running out of reasons to live.  We discover that what keeps him going is a quest for atonement.

The socio-political undercurrent which surfaces so powerfully at the end is lost in the police procedural more than subtly requires. And gripping though it is with a creepy assortment of regional characters, this is a procedural rife with clichés. Most noticeably, the women are property; the girls are young harlots and one-dimensional victims; while most of the men are ignorant monsters. A journalist (Manolo Solo) emerges to help Pedro but otherwise, Pedro is on his own in a hostile environment. That being said, the rain drenched climax in which Juan makes a final stab at atonement is enough to give Marshland the wow factor – not to mention a shelf full of Goya Awards.