SPOILER ALERT: This piece contains spoilers of some of the relatively early, but significant events in Marshland, so read at your own risk.
The murk of the past obscures any hope for the future in Marshland.
The past and the future make for uneasy bedfellows in this murky tale of murder and corruption. When two girls, Carmen and Estrella, go missing, Madrid’s authorities send in Juan and Pedro to solve the case. The latter is an idealist who was demoted and exiled for writing a letter in defence of democracy, whilst the former worked for the bunker boys suppressing democratic protest in the final years of the Franco regime. Not that it seems to have ended for many Spaniards. The Generalissimo’s picture hangs in the office of the local Civil Guard alongside that of King Juan Carlos, and the methods that used to work in the old days still have a way of producing results now.
This is Marshland; a Spanish noir that is part crime thriller, part psychological drama and a film that cuts right to the heart of how Spain has tried to deal not only with its Fascist past, but the autocratic rule common throughout so much of the country’s history too. That world is collapsing as the story unfolds. It’s September 1980 and across much of Andalusia the workers are on strike, demanding better pay and no longer heeding the call of the bosses.
For our two heroes what started off as a simple missing persons case begins to slide dangerously out of control as the missing girls are pulled, dead and naked, from the marshes, their nipples having been pulled off with pliers. Turns out Carmen and Estrella aren’t the first girls to die in such a way, with bodies of young girls, also tortured before they were killed, having been found in the preceding years. Connected to it all is local heartthrob and pimp, Quini, who exploits young girls by promising them contracts to work in Malaga. In reality they are tied naked to a bed and local big wig Alfonso Corrales takes pictures. These are then used to keep the girls in line and any who try to leave are killed.
Grim and dark as that is, it isn’t the main story in Marshland. Instead the film examines how Spain approaches its past. After Franco died and Juan Carlos oversaw the transition to democracy, the country carried on as if it was business as usual. People kept their jobs, including police officers who been used for political purposes. When Juan, whose idea of interrogating people involves severely beating them, tells the woman who cleans the house where the girls were photographed and blackmailed just how much pain a person can withstand before passing out we are left in no doubt – he is speaking from the experience gained in dishing out such torture.
Marshland shows us a world where everyone is out for themselves. Pedro sees the investigation as his way back to Madrid. The newspaperman wants a story people can’t stop reading. Carmen and Estrella’s father, Rodrigo, stole and then sold some heroin to buy a new car. Even local guide Jesus wants cigarettes, money, and Pedro’s shoes before he’ll help show the cops around the marshes. Everyone else just wants to get away from the town and its clapped out Citroens. A metaphor for how so many Spaniards left their country for better prosperity elsewhere, as they still do.
Coming at a time when the debate over how to deal with the legacy of Franco is at the forefront of Spanish politics, Marshland provides a timely glimpse into the murky nature of that legacy and how, for so many in Spain, the past continues to overshadow the future. Marshland is gripping, great, and above all, interesting.
By Gareth Wood