It sounds churlish to argue that a movie can have too much integrity for its own good, but that’s exactly the problem with La Ciénaga. A rambling drama of two linked families, set in the jungle-humid mountains of northwest Argentina, it’s a chronicle of torpor and malaise and back-biting misery in which a single den of domestic indolence is meant to reflect the rotting infrastructure of the society around it. But there’s hardly a moment when the director, Lucrecia Martel, isn’t rubbing our faces in the blowsy corrupt entropy of it all.
An alcoholic matriarch (Graciela Borges), her voice a chalkboard scrape of contempt, chastizes her servants, her teenage children, even herself, tripping at poolside with a handful of wine glasses, the broken shards lodging themselves in her bosom. The pool itself is filthy, and the children lounge around in bed like middle-aged depressives. A shudder of impotent erotic frisson passes between brother and sister.
There may be whispers of reality to this abandon-all-hope vision of Argentina, but it’s a truth presented didactically, without eloquence, vitality, or a mordant glimmer of spirit. One need look no further than Chekhov or ”Pixote” to see that a tragic look at people of any class who have arrived at aimlessness needn’t, in itself, be aimless. ”La Ciénaga” has been praised as the herald of an Argentinian film renaissance, but far superior works from that country, such as the Toronto film festival hit ”Nine Queens,” await us. This one is austere ersatz art.