Every review of Spanish police procedural Marshland that I have read to date begins with a discussion of the film’s opening shots, so I’ll break away from the norm and leave that until the end. After the credits director Alberto Rodríguez serves up an atmospheric, moody and occasionally-surprising detective story that revolves around a pair of mismatched partners (Raúl Arévalo and Javier Gutiérrez) and their investigation into the disappearance and murder of two teenage girls in rural Andalucian wetlands. It requires concentration and the screenplay – co-written by Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos – generally avoids those revelatory ‘eureka!’ moments and implausible breakthroughs that big screen detectives tend to enjoy; little wonder then that the scenario, style and setting have led many to compare it with the slow-burning first season of True Detective: there’s a similar look and feel to this film, while Arévalo even resembles Matthew McConaughey, although production on Marshland began before the American TV series was made.
Like the HBO show it’s also set in the past; in this case 1980, five years after the death of fascist dictator General Franco as Spain transitioned into democracy. The country’s state of flux is a key theme, and there are plenty of suggestions during the film that coming to terms with the events of the previous four decades is a difficult process for its citizens, many of which colluded with or fought against the oppressive regime. Pro- and anti-Franco messages are seen, scrawled here and there on walls, while the employment prospects of local and migrant workers is an underlying concern; there are limited opportunities here and many younger villagers have left for jobs on the Costa del Sol, where tourism is booming. The two main characters here are opposing ideologues: we see nothing of the private lives of younger, idealistic Pedro (Arévalo) or cynical Juan (Gutiérrez) but we do eventually learn (after the case has been wrapped up) that their partnership is uneasy for a reason. Through their actions as they attempt to solve the case, however, we see that the pair are more similar than they think.
With his receding hairline and moustache Gutiérrez could pass for the younger, slimmer Franco of the 1940s, and the actor delivers an excellent performance as the food-and-drink-guzzling older partner, who seems at first to be barely interested in the details of the case and only stimulated by the cuisine of the region. He steadily develops into the more complex, interesting character of the two, a man who is regularly transfixed by the birds he sees on the marshes, which are perhaps symbolic of those tortured souls tortured and murdered by Franco’s police force, while clues about his background are teased out as residents of the area (the Guadalquivir Marshes, south west of Seville) supernaturally ‘read’ him or find out about his past by more conventional means. Arévalo’s character is perhaps less interesting, though the actor makes up for it with mysterious glances and plenty of brooding stares into the middle distance.
Let’s get on to those opening shots. The wonderful work by DP Álex Catalán is mostly carried out at ground level but the occasional crane (or helicopter) shot allows the viewer to enjoy a bird’s eye view of the marshes (see above for an example), which shows us just how labyrinthine the territory is, and just how difficult it must be to find missing persons or dead bodies within it. As you can see it resembles the human brain, and the vast expanse is filled with river tributaries, fields, dirt tracks and dwellings that are either remote, abandoned or both. The two detectives are not familiar with the area, and the director is reliant on the viewer’s unfamiliarity too; it accentuates the sense that there are unknown, lurking dangers and provides the perfect cover for the macabre, unexpected acts of violence that suddenly erupt. In this fine cop drama the ghosts of Spain’s troubled past linger unseen but felt.
Directed by: Alberto Rodríguez.
Written by: Alberto Rodríguez, Rafael Cobos.
Starring: Raúl Arévalo, Javier Gutiérrez.
Cinematography: Álex Catalán.
Editing: José M. G. Moyano.
Music: Julio de la Rosa.
Running Time: 104 minutes.