In this atmospherically and psychologically swampy film, a tropical toxin seems to have infected the populace of Argentina's countryside, or at least the sprawling, dissolute ranks of one extended family. The bickering, violent, incestuous members who make up the film's sprawlingly fucked-up clan make most American soaps look like "The Donna Reed Show."
La Cienaga begins with a drunken injury, as family matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges) trips and falls on a shattered wineglass. The other adults loll like paunchy, leathery zombies in their huge sunglasses and gold chains beside a stagnant green scum-covered pool. Stunned by too much booze, boredom or the steamy climate, none of them makes a move to help Mecha, who lies in a heap of broken glass and blood. Instead, it is Mecha's legion of children, including daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), and the perpetually chastised Indian servant Isabel (Andrea Lopez) who rush the surly, sodden bleeding woman to the hospital.
Like Larry Clark's set dressing of wall-to-wall half-dressed kiddies, alcoholic queen bee Mecha's country house is a zoo of indolent flesh. Her children and their visiting cousins drape idly across the furniture like salamanders when they aren't jolting into sudden bursts of violent horseplay.
With the parents foggy and disengaged, the kids have grown wild like weeds invading the flowerbed. Mecha keeps mentioning a plan to get her youngest son Joaquin a glass eye, but you get the feeling the scratched, filthy, angry kid will never see the inside of a doctor's office. And it's no wonder Momi is smitten with maid Isabel -- she's the only one who mothers her, begging her to get out of her swimwear and into a shower or cuddling with her on one of the film's countless beds. Though the ambiance is culturally specific, shades of some universal social ills are on parade in La Cienaga, as though a kind of sexual, moral and despairing lawlessness has taken over.
When Mecha's cousin Tali (Mercedes Moran) travels with her own huge brood of children to visit her convalescing relation, more young bodies are added to the mix and a new, troubling dimension arises. There is a clammy, lazy, sexual intimacy within this clan that is blithely accepted by the parents. The children congregate in Mecha's bedroom, bathe together and sniff around each other like puppies. Mecha keeps complaining about the sultry weather and loading her wine glass with ice cubes from a bedside refrigerator. But it's not the heat or the humidity in La Cienaga, it's the family who have created their own damp, hazy, moral fog.
La Cienaga is a virulent portrait of a decayed, idle, directionless middle class whose children seem to be following in their parents' footsteps. As with another recent Pan-American sleeper, Amores Perros, the magical realism of this regional film culture has given way to a black, apocalyptic funk.
It's tempting to see political allegory in La Cienaga, especially considering the country's bloody past, until you consider how closely the film resembles the rambling, depressive rhythm of an American film like Gummo or Fassbinder's cruel melodramas of the '70s. When it comes right down to it, hopelessness is hopelessness is hopelessness.
And affliction certainly extends beyond the parameters of this diseased family. The only show on television is a constant National Enquirer-worthy news program about a Virgin Mary sighting on a crummy town's water tower. And the moral quicksand of La Cienaga suggests some need for the succor of cheesy televised religion. The air is thick with urban legends about rats as big as dogs; mountains full of feral children armed with rifles hunting game; and local Indians described as sexually perverse savages. But it's the middle-class that is clearly in the greatest need of emotional rescue.