BEIRUT: Spain’s Guadalquivir River has an Arabic name – wadi al-kabir (big valley). Before it empties into the Atlantic, the river’s course is scattered into a dense labyrinth of channels called the Guadalquivir Marshes.
As these narrow channels snake through the multiple peninsulas that interrupt and redirect their course, the land and inlets bend back upon themselves repeatedly.
When seen from above, it can bear an uncanny resemblance to the folds of a human brain.
The marshes are the principal location for Alberto Rodriguez’s 2014 thriller “La isla m?nima” (Marshland), a sharp-edged neo-noir set in 1980, five years after the death of fascist dictator Francisco Franco and the country’s halting return to democracy.
Spain’s post-Franco ambivalence is front and center in this genre picture, introduced before any criminality has been spelled out to drive the plot forward.
Pedro (Ra?l Arévalo) had been working as a detective in Madrid before writing an open letter criticizing the behavior of one of the country’s generals.
His transfer to this rural backwater is the state’s way of punishing his civic-mindedness.
Pedro’s resentment stiffens his manner, simmering in his phone conversations with his wife and the contempt with which he holds everyone around him, including his partner.
Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) is older and more easygoing. While Pedro seems incapable of smiling, Juan is personable, boozes gleefully, enjoys a good meal and a sardonic laugh.
The crucifix mounted on the wall of the cops’ hotel room, for instance, is festooned with photos of Franco, Mussolini and Hitler.
“Welcome to your new home,” he tells the republican Pedro with a chuckle. His partner pulls the thing off the wall and stuffs it in a drawer.
Pedro dismisses Juan as a corrupt cop. He is too but, working in a small town where drunkenness is among the few pastimes, being a friendly drunk doesn’t prevent him from being good at his job.
A couple of leering hicks from the local gendarmerie inform the detectives that two sisters named Carmen and Estrella, 15 and 16 respectively, have gone missing.
A preliminary interview with the parents reveals an angry father who seems to want his daughters back so that he can punish them.
The girls’ young mother is more forthcoming but cautious around her husband. When her husband’s out of the room she gives Juan a strip of film negatives she says she found in the fireplace.
The other evidence they find in the girl’s room is a pamphlet for employment in Costa del Sol. As they dig deeper into the case, the cops learn that Carmen and Estrella are among a group of four young women that have disappeared and later resurfaced as tortured corpses or fragments of corpses.
All four had vanished during the local harvest and all possessed the same Costa del Sol job brochure. As it turns out, all four knew one another and, as an incriminating photo suggests, all knew a good-looking young fellow named Quini.
As happens in noir-inspired film, Juan and Pedro gradually uncover scraps of evidence that suggest the true nature of the crime that the two are investigating.
What’s intriguing about “La isla m?nima” – and quite true to genre convention – is that their most valuable leads come from questionable sectors of the local economy, while the town’s honest citizens greet their inquiries with indifference mixed with contempt.
In this respect Fernandez and his co-writer Rafael Cobos have used genre formula as a tool to remark upon how a culture of corruption can breed in regions of economic marginality where wealth and power are concentrated into too few hands. As the drone-mounted camera withdraws from the fields where harvest is about to begin, there’s good reason to assume that the most egregious criminals in this town haven’t even been questioned, let alone punished.
That said, “La isla m?nima” is about as far from rural political economy as you can imagine.
Its first priority is bracing, absorbing entertainment.
Like the Guadalquivir Marshes itself, Rodriguez’s film constantly interrupts itself. The police procedural is diverted by the looming backstories of its two mismatched protagonists – first Pedro’s then, more gradually, Juan’s – and the jagged edge of Franco-era violence in which Juan has been implicated.
But before the story commences – before the plot tautens and Rodriguez’s editor can make ever-more frenetic use of jump-cuts – the camera of DP Alex Catalan is fixed. Suspended from a drone hovering above the vistas of the Guadalquivir Marshes, it might be the eye of a coroner assessing slices of a diseased frontal lobe.
Alberto Rodr?guez’s “La isla m?nima” will be projected at Metropolis Cinema-Sofil Tuesday (tonight) at 8 p.m. Spanish Film Week continues through Nov. 20.