Can You See What I See?
Director Lina Rodriguez on the elusive artistry of Lucrecia Martel
Lucrecia Martel’s LA CIÉNAGA
“The world is full of discussions of condensation, drifts, misunderstanding, repetition. These are the materials I work with.” —Lucrecia Martel
I first saw Lucrecia Martel’s Salta Trilogy — La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman — at TIFF Cinematheque during the retrospective of Martel’s work that James Quandt curated in 2009. The unique atmosphere in each of these films — the way they trace the present moment while summoning the past (which is what cinema ultimately is for me: a document of the present that is then shared with an audience as a lived past), the focus on seemingly unimportant, quotidian moments and family dynamics (and their intersections with class, gender and race), and Lucrecia’s instinctual ability to express what cannot be clearly said — made a huge impression on me as I was starting to write my first feature film, Señoritas. Lucrecia’s acute attention to the distribution of bodies in space and to the emotional and physical choreographies of the everyday helped me find my own way to use sounds and images to focus on the experience of a middle-class young woman in Bogotá and trace her sensations of moving and interacting in private and public spaces while she negotiated the different expectations of those around her.
As I made my second feature Mañana a esta hora and through the development of my forthcoming third feature So Much Tenderness (which will take place in Toronto and feature both English and Spanish dialogue), Lucrecia’s cinema has remained a sort of spiritual influence for me. I am constantly inspired by her non-judgmental approach to every single one of her characters, the precise way she constructs such tactile worlds in her films (there seems to be a kind of palpable confusion and an incessant movement of bodies, a lack of order), and the way her frames are populated by on- and offscreen sounds and micro-events that dislocate us, yet somehow provide a moving impression of the bewildering experience of living and being.
Filmmaking has never been a solely theoretical, technical or intellectual matter for me — in a way, I make films so that I don’t have to provide clear and definite statements, because I don’t have any to give. For me, making films is a way to face the world from my perspective, a way to inquire about what I don’t understand. I see it as a process of discovery, not a platform to demonstrate something or to present (or represent) reality, as reality is not singular, solid or or-ganized: it’s chaotic and has endless gaps.
This is one of the reasons why I find Martel’s La Ciénaga endlessly fascinating. It is not con-cerned with telling us what to feel when, who to trust, or who to follow; instead, it uses sound, framing, and editing in a uniquely evocative way to create an intimate portrait of the complex relationships between two families who seem trapped between survival and stagnation. Headed by two matriarchs, Tali (Mercedes Morán) and Mecha (Graciela Borges), the families inhabit rundown houses through which people incessantly come and go, each of them with their own desires, resentments, and abandonments.
Just like when one recalls memories, trying to digest what is happening in this film is not easy or straightforward, considering that simultaneity is a key element in Lucrecia’s work. Throughout the film, it’s not only hard to understand how people are related to one another, but it’s also dif-ficult to hear and see with clarity as everything seems to happen at the same time: characters fre-quently speak over each other, and we hear things that we can’t understand or identify all the time. This is why, instead of attempting some sort of analysis of the film, I chose instead to put together an idiosyncratic inventory that attempts to describe what we can hear and see during a single scene, which “primarily” focuses on Momi (the daughter of Mecha, the owner of the house) and Isabel, one of the family’s maids. With this exercise, I am hoping to convey what it feels like to watch Lucrecia’s films; this is the only way I could find to “speak” about that unique sensation.
• On a television screen, we see and hear a reporter with a microphone interviewing a woman who says she has been there for two hours and cannot see anything. The woman says the house owner is there, and she and the reporter move towards another woman.
• We hear other voices saying they can see. We hear the woman who was first interviewed say, again, that she cannot see anything and that she has been there for two hours.
• In a bedroom, we see two girls next to each other on a bed watching television. Momi is lying down on her right arm and is under a blanket, with white cream on her cheeks; Isabel leans against the headboard.
• Isabel eats something. From the television, we hear the reporter asking the house owner if her daughter is in. The owner says she is and that she will call her.
• Isabel’s hand puts food directly in Momi’s mouth. From the television, we hear the woman call her daughter and tell her the reporter wants to ask her some questions. Momi chews.
• On the television, we see and hear the reporter asking the house owner’s daughter if she saw the Virgin and how she saw her. The daughter says that she was hanging clothes and that she saw a light above the water tank.
• We see televised images of the roofs of houses and then a water tank (I can’t see the Virgin on it) as we hear the house owner’s daughter say that she then looked above the water tank and saw the Virgin. We hear the reporter ask the daughter if she had seen the Virgin before, or if this was the first time.
• We see two people (who appear to be a young woman and a young man, the latter holding an umbrella) looking upwards, and hear the house owner’s daughter say it was her first time, her only time seeing the Virgin.
• We see the water tank again, and hear the reporter ask the house owner’s daughter if she saw the Virgin from up close or far away.
• We see and hear the house owner’s daughter say that it was “medium,” that she was in the yard and that she saw her on the water tank, which wasn’t too far away. We hear the sound of a phone ringing.
• In the bedroom, we see the phone on the night table next to the bed on which Momi and Isabel are lying, and hear it ring a second time. From the television, we hear a voice say that they cannot see anything, and then a male voice says that his niece had told him she could see her [the Virgin], but that he can’t see anything.
• The phone rings twice more. We see Momi softly kick Isabel, and say that her mother says that it should be Isabel who answers the phone. Isabel softly pushes Momi with her arm. Momi picks up the phone and says “Hello.”
• In another bedroom, we see and hear a young man without a shirt, sitting on a bed and holding a cord phone (José, Momi's brother), say hello to Momi (he calls her “dirty Momi”). An older woman (Mercedes) sits next to him on the bed; she seems to be folding a piece of clothing.
• José says he knows what happened because Vero (José and Momi’s sister) called him from the hospital, and asks if she is back already. Mercedes lifts her hair and tells José not to talk long on the phone, as it’s long distance.
• We hear a kind of rattling sound (perhaps a train passing by?). José asks Mercedes if she wants him to open a window; Mercedes says it would be worse.
• José tells Momi to tell Vero that he will go there the next day almost for sure. He repeats the same thing a bit louder; Mercedes gives José an annoyed look.
• José asks Momi to lower the volume on the television, as he cannot hear her. He turns to look at Mercedes as he asks Momi who she is with.
• We hear the rattling sound again (perhaps a train passing by?). José tells Momi to pass the phone to Isabel.
• We see Momi pass the telephone to Isabel, while from the television we hear a woman’s voice say that someone told her that they saw the Virgin, but that a man didn’t believe it. Momi turns back towards the television. We see Isabel’s hand and the lower part of her face as she holds the phone and says hello to José. From the television, we hear the same woman’s voice say that he told her that he had to see to believe, because there were a lot of people. Momi turns towards Isabel.
• Isabel listens to the phone for a moment, then sits up without saying anything and throws the phone on the bed. She stands up, pauses for a second (maybe she puts on her shoes?), and walks away, disappearing behind the television (which we can see in the foreground).
• Momi sits up and asks Isabel (whom she calls “Isa”) where she is going. We hear Isabel reply that Momi’s brother told her to leave. Momi picks up the phone and yells at José, telling him to stop pretending to be responsible (this is my translation, as opposed to the English subtitles). She hangs up the phone and tells Isabel (whom she calls “Isa” again) that José says he apologizes. Then she gets up and follows Isabel, leaving the bed empty.
Although nothing major seems to be happening in this scene, I love how Lucrecia’s masterful layering of images and sounds creates a rich atmosphere that provides us, however obliquely, with a sensation of what these spaces feel like as well as telling information about the way the characters relate to and feel about each other. We get a sense of the power dynamics at play: we can see that José has the power to tell Isabel to leave the room, even if he’s not in the same house as her; and the way that Mercedes looks at José and moves around him gives us an idea of the power that she has over him. And although the sounds and images coming from the television create an initial sense of chaos and confusion, once we understand that the news piece is about — those who can see the apparition of the Virgin and those who cannot — they start working as another layer that contributes to the scene’s rhythm and tone, and later becomes a motif that will be repeated throughout the film as a kind of promised miracle that never comes.
What is visible or intelligible and what is not is an ongoing formal and narrative question in La Ciénaga, and continues to be in all of Lucrecia’s films — and as she doesn’t offer us completely clear answers, we are made to become more active and present as viewers. Just as Lucrecia takes the contradictions, misunderstandings and drifts present in the world and makes them into her materials, so she invites us to work with them alongside her.
Watch the full scene below: