La Ciénaga by Lucrecia Martel can really the warp the viewer’s sense of time in a beautiful, maddening way. Nothing much really happens in the film, just plenty of wasted days laying around the house, the pool, and the forest. There are two intertwined families whose relationships to one another aren’t always entirely clear, spending time in a communal malaise in the swampy heat of summer, with lots of literal laying around. I’m sure that sounds like the worst sales pitch ever to watch a film, and this definitely isn’t a film for everyone, or maybe even most people. But, for those that like to be absorbed into an atmosphere and to be with characters who feel lived, not created, this film is for you.
The biggest thing we as viewers can pick up on is that the adults have abdicated all responsibility and authority and left the children to care for themselves, physically and emotionally. In a scene early on, one of the mothers gets drunk, falls, and cuts herself by the pool, she yells at and pushes away her teen daughter who is trying to help her. Yet this young girl, whose family has made her grown well beyond her years, bears with the immaturity and continues to make sure her mother gets to the hospital to receive appropriate medical attention. The woman’s husband, also drunk, is lounging in the background and making no move to help out his wife or daughter while all of this is playing out. That one scene tell us everything we need to understand about these people and how they relate to each other. It sets up the rest of the film so that we don’t have to question any small interactions or things we see and what they mean, we already know how shit this family’s relationships are and any little action that seems shitty is really shitty, there is no explanation or redeeming story behind it.
The only redemption in the whole film, in fact, is Momi, played beautifully by Sofia Bertolotto. She puts up with every member of her family and their shit, and she desperately clings to the one light for her in this mess, the family maid, Isabel. Momi’s mom (the aforementioned drunk), is casually racist towards Isabel as an indigenous person and sees her as a fundamentally lesser human, whereas Momi regards her as one of the family. The tension seems such that it will eventually lead to Isabel leaving the family, taking away Mom’s one source of joy and relief. It is with that lens that we must look at Momi’s interactions with her family as fairly miraculous, still taking on the role of caretaker for the family despite the total lack of help and support they give to her and their seeming desire to drive Isabel away. Momi represents that hope still exists in this swamp of hopelessness. She represents that you can be put in the middle of chaos, you can give of yourself to everyone around you while receiving nothing in return, and still have the potential to grow up and escape the swamp and live a happy life. Perhaps that is me imposing my own hope onto this character and the film because I need there to be an escape from the dreary existence it chronicles. And I acknowledge it’s a strange hope: a teen girl being burdened unfairly by tremendous parental neglect and the need to manage her family’s drama is able to handle it without being crushed into nothingness like her parents so that she may one day live a functional life and have the chance for happiness, hooray!
But for me, it is a hope. And right now, with the state of the world as it is and all the chaos and unmanageable relationships abounding everywhere, I need a hope. Because the thing about Momi, as I see her, is that she doesn’t judge or condemn anyone around her, and she doesn’t disengage from any of them either. She deals with them as they are and tries to manage things the best she can for herself and for her family around her. Sometimes we are destined to fail and the chaos around us is too much to overcome, but we cannot be crushed by it, so we can pick ourselves back up after the fall and move forward. We cannot hide from or prevent the trauma the world is going to throw at us, we can only learn how to bear it. And for me, Momi is a symbol of hope that we can bear it with grace and dignity.