Alberto Rodríguez’s Marshland [La isla minima] opens in 1980 Andalucía. Times are a-changing as the fascist regime has come to an end and a democratic genesis is taking baby-steps in moving the country out of political turmoil. Detectives Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo) are called in from Madrid to investigate the disappearance of sisters Estrella and Carmen. Both men are out of their comfort zone in Guadalquivir marshland and aside from their employment and respective facial hair, they appear to have little in common and each personifies the changes of the political climate (and not always in the ways one would think). This personality clash adds to the tension, especially when the girls are eventually found, sexually assaulted, tortured; their mutilated bodies left in a ditch, and so begins the ambiguous crossing of lines between cop and hunted. Both determined to catch a murderer and prevent more killings by any means necessary.
Visually, this Southern Spanish Gothic-cum-neo-noir is stunning, beautifully shot with some breath-taking views courtesy of Alex Catalan’s cinematography. The drone-captured aerial shots, while not a particularly new technique of late, are fantastic; the opening montage resembling both brain and ocular cavity, as if the land itself is an additional character. The use of colour is wonderful, the flamingo scene stunning. Rural Andalucía brings to mind South Korea’s Memories of Murder, Argentina’s Everybody Has a Plan, and even the US’ The Texas Killing Fields and certainly the tone and colour – as well as subject matter – does lend itself to these films and builds an atmosphere which becomes specifically gripping during the final sequence. There is even a supernatural element which aids the noirish and gothic feel to the whole insular, albeit, conventional plot. Misogyny and machismo are at odds just as democracy and the Franco era which still lurks in the background.
The male leads are outstanding, even Goya-winning in the case of Gutiérrez, they are not necessarily complex but at least they have activity to see them through the plot, which sadly, cannot be said for most of the females in the diegesis. There is a severe lack of characters beyond victims, not all are named and almost all either cry or die. Yes, this is an eighties set film and, as previously stated, there is an authenticity to it but a little character development would not have gone amiss, although given the parallels of the 80s and the world today (economic crisis, social tension, inherent sexism), perhaps, it is purposefully done. The slightest of niggles aside; it really is an enthralling watch which unfolds amid beautiful aesthetics.