MARSHLAND (LA ISLA MINIMA) is an excellent gothic thriller directed and co-written by Alberto Rodriguez. Set in a rural town in Andalusia, in September 1980, the film presents a mystery involving the disappearance and murder of two teenage girls against the backdrop of the transition to democracy after the death of Franco. Two detectives from Madrid – quickly established as the young, idealistic, good cop and the older, jaded, bad cop – are investigating the case while trying to work with each other. As the film goes on, however, it is apparent there is more going on beneath the surface, of both the characters and the town.
The great strengths of this movie are the cinematography and the sound design. MARSHLAND is interspersed with beautiful aerial shots of the title setting and surroundings. The desaturated yellow colouring of the film gives the impression of being old and faded, which is fitting for a period piece, and the use of shadows in the many night scenes are effective as well. The sound design elevates the film greatly, with the haunting soundtrack accompanied by a chorus of cicadas and other creatures foregrounding the remoteness of the area. The climax of the film presents the sound design at its most effective: all music is gone, and the sounds of the characters breathing and moving as they race through the marshland are heightened.
The dialogue is fairly sparse and simple, relying more on the actors and the camera to convey what it needs to. The film is slower paced, taking the time to create tension and a brooding atmosphere while they establish the details of the crime and pursue suspects. That is until the car chase near the end of the film – from this scene on the film delivers on its promise as a thriller, providing a tense action ending that is thoroughly engaging.
The film ends on a morally ambiguous note, reflecting the ethical dilemmas that are presented throughout. On the one hand, some form of justice is found for the victims and the town is able to go on without the spectre of these acts looming over them. On the other hand, the deeper issues at play in a country still familiar with the rule of fascism remain unresolved, and the lack of power to ensure that all those who are guilty of crimes, both personal and on the political level, are brought to light leaves an intentionally frustrating final note for the film, that questions how much change can really happen after all.
MARSHLAND is an engaging look into the psyche of Spain at the time, with excellent directing and good acting, especially from the two stars – Javier Gutiérrez and Raúl Arévalo – who bring the nuances of their characters to the forefront very effectively. The plot itself is not revolutionary, but the setting of the film elevates the conventional storyline and imbues it with political and social commentary that will appeal to those with an interest in Spanish culture, while also being very visually appealing.