(La marea) Diego Martinez Vignatti / Belgium / 2007
Is minimalism enough for an arthouse film any more? This is precisely the problem posed to an audience watching La Marea (Tides), the haunting directorial debut by Diego Martinez Vignatti. It follows the retreat of a lady who loses her husband and son in a car crash. She cocoons herself in a hut on the sea shore, mourning her loss for the entire film. And that's about it. Vignatti, the well regarded cinematographer and frequent Carlos Reygadas collaborator, has crafted a gem in the popular South American minimalist vein. But is this sufficient; does workmanlike magnificence trump inventiveness? Of course it doesn't but then where does that leave La Marea?
Opening with the sole image of the lead actress Eugenia Ramirez Miori (as Azul) looking serene, this is followed by shots of the crashing of waves upon a beach which is later revealed to be the location for the majority of the film. It is also the site of much of Azul's family's former idyllic happiness. Then the next shot is of the front of a crashed car, its windscreen partially caved in. It's a brutal succession of sparsely drawn out images that leads one expertly and crushingly to the heart of the film in mere minutes freeing the rest of it to mostly wordlessly try and express the kind of emotional abyss Azul is lost within. We subsequently follow Azul on a journey to a hut by the sea where her grief plays out in near silence.
Unsurprisingly it looks nice given Vignatti's credentials but nothing much else happens really. Not that this even remotely matters. Challenging as the best of these kind of films are, it avoids boredom in exactly the same way that works by Tarkovsky, Tarr and Reygadas all do. Filmed to look fairly fuzzy and grainy every shot looks gorgeous, banishing most qualms of boredom by incorporating some element that moves in each shot - either the camera or a character (typically Azul), or even the slow transition from the urban to the rural shown near the start. This approach reaches considerable sophistication in a couple of scenes where the camera pans back and forth revealing something different on each pass. The first night at the hut is a good example where the camera swings from Azul sleeping in the bed to her husband and son watching at the door where they blend into the white with their white shirts, to a fisherman who also pops his head in and then back to Azul in the morning who is now on the bed looking out of the window. When Vignatti can pull off shots like this he doesn't need to do much else as we are enraptured by them.
As if this were insufficient Vignatti also throws in a few visions and flashbacks for Azul. Most hauntingly of all, one has Azul chase her son through some woods. Startlingly shot through pools of light with a soundtrack of the boy playing and a raising cacophony of bird song she eventually finds him face to face with a puma. It's unsure whether this is a flashback or a dream (she's dressed in different happier clothes to the black shift she wears throughout) but it's horrible regardless. It culminates in the most horrible sequence of all where Azul beckons the fisherman to her bed with simply the words “A son, a son”. Her grief has been made so palpable that it burns, let down further by a later setback I won't reveal here.
In the wake of Tarkovsky, Tarr et al, copying is no longer enough despite the clanging difference films of this vein present when compared to the popular cinema mainstream. In this way La Marea regrettably seems far more powerful than perhaps it actually is. The line has been set by other films taking this kind of nothingness sentiment even further like Honour of the Knights (Quixotic) or Syndromes and a Century, both of which proved somewhat impervious to enjoyment but utterly immune to forgetfulness. La Marea is not going to be forgotten in a hurry either but sadly it may not be remembered. It remains however an expert depiction of grief, that almost screams from the screen in utter anguish with every tool at its disposal.