Film review: La Isla Minima – Marshland

Her granddaughter had told her to go and watch the film. Gran had ordered her granddaughter to get her the complete first series of “True Detective”. Gran didn’t like having to wait a week for a new episode to be shown on telly. So while waiting for her granddaughter to deliver, gran had taken her advice.

We sat chatting at the back of the cinema, waiting for “La Isla Minima” or “Marshland” to start. Four Spanish-speaking people joined us, but chatted among themselves. Like gran, I was in the middle of “True Detective”, but waiting for the next episode to be shown.Film reviewers mentioned in various languages, that “La Isla Minima” was very much like “True Detective”.

The film starts with beautiful shots of the Guadalquivir river delta in Andalusia, where this story takes place. The marshland, intersected by small streams with the occasional stranded small boat or white dwelling, truly looks like a swampy and mushy human brain with the boats or small houses like exclamation or question marks.

Flamingos and other birds fly over this odd, shifty and treacherous land. The pattern of water and mudflats is occasionally broken by huge fields of yellow grains or straight, narrow, elevated roads. There are no humans. Despite the birds, the land seems sinister and threatening. It plays an important role in this film.

Andalusia has many national parks and not all are as sinister as the landscape of this film. The Doñana National Park is one resembling closely the area, where this film takes place. But if you have time to visit it, go in the spring or autumn when birds migrate. Spain’s murderous summer heat will not wash over you as in “Marshland”, while you’re observing the birds.

After the beautiful opening, the camera zooms in on a road through the marshes bordered by sprawling yellow fields of grain. Two men are picked up by a tractor pulling a cart full of locals. The car of the two men has broken down. Late in the evening, they finally arrive at their hotels, but one of the rooms has been given to another guest.

The two stranded men turn out to be policemen who have been kicked out of Madrid for different reasons. The slim, tall one has written an article for a newspaper which was critical of the new, post-Franco regime.What the other one did, only becomes clear during the rest of the film.

They have been sent to find out why two teenage girls ran away from home – yet again. Like many locals, the girls were known to want to escape the dreary area for a city’s bright lights, but would usually return within 24 to 48 hours. Not so now, so a family member has pulled strings.

Both detectives do not like each other. They belong to opposite sides, have opposite ideas and views about practically everything, lead quite different private lives, and at first, do not behave similar. But they need to work together and when the disappearance turns into a very nasty murder case, they become a team. They take on inhabitants, drug dealers, derailed kids, the establishment, corrupt local police, while hunting down a serial killer.

The two men, one of whom is sick, receive some help from a local poacher and a journalist. They meet quite a few odd people, including a clairvoyant. Slowly they discover, someone has been abusing young women and uses henchmen to get in touch with victims and dispose of them afterwards.

In the end, they find the abuser. But he is protected by others high up on the social ladder. The only thing the two policemen can do, is trying to catch the henchmen. This will only temporarily break the chain, one presumes. After a few surprising twists and revelations, the relationship between the detectives is back at square one. The film seems to imply that even though Franco’s fascist state is changing into a democracy, many things will remain the same.

Gran left before I could ask her what she thought of the film. Personally, I must admit there are plenty scenes which might have come straight from “True Detective”. The empty landscape (though the Spanish one is far more desolate and dry), a fairly isolated community which does not like outsiders, an abandoned building with writings on the wall, one of the detectives having visions (though of flamingos and kingfishers) because of medication – all are very like scenes from the American television series.

However: there are differences. The narrative constructions differ greatly. The political extra layer is clearer in “La Isla Minima”. As “Marshland” needs to tell its story in less than two hours, tension is higher and diversions and digressions are kept to a minimum.

So even if you have seen “True Detective”, this film will not disappoint. It is engrossing, even despite scenes of violence and overkill. It keeps you on edge and the twist at the end of the story might surprise you as well. All in all: another film which should be seen this summer.

“La Isla Minima” or “Marshland”, directed by Alberto Rodríguez and released in Spain in 2014, has recently been released in cinemas throughout Europe.
Guardian review of “Marshland”
Youtube official trailer “Marshland”



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