[original title: Familia sumergida]
Marcela, a woman in her 50s, is standing in the flat of her late sister Rina, who has recently died after a prolonged illness. Now the entire contents of the flat have to be sorted through, packed up, and either thrown out or handed to those interested or in need. She does receive no help from her teenage children, her allegedly busy half-brother, or from her husband, who is out of town on a work assignment.
Marcela is not just left alone with the work at the flat, she is also left alone with her grief. No-one in her family seems to care all that much about her sister’s death; the only one who is really devastated is a random neighbour.
With her daily household chores, the additional work at her sister’s flat, the bonus trouble her children create, and finally her grief all mounting up, Marcela spirals into a silent crisis that includes questionable decisions and lots of visions of long-dead relatives.
Those visions are caused by the fact that Marcela’s grief extends beyond the death of her sister. There is also a sense of loss of the past. Every member of her family’s older generations is dead, and her sister was the last one who could remember stories from their grandparents, or who could put names to the many faces in the old black-and-white family photos. Marcela’s family history, like an old village at the bottom of a reservoir, is still there, but it can no longer be seen or accessed. Hence the title of the film. That symbolism extends to a plot of land her family has for a long time owned in the countryside – it is flooded half the year, we are told.
There are other meanings to the title, of course, such as the impression that Marcela is drowning in her emotions, as well as in the big and small problems of family life. Because what we see in this film is a pretty dismal picture of family life. Everyone in Marcela’s family (apart from herself) seems to be preoccupied with their own life – and too busy to care about others. They may love each other, but they barely take note of each other. Only the second oldest of the three children seems to be causing no trouble, and she is the one most routinely ignored by everyone else. Which makes me wonder whether writer/director María Alche is herself a middle child…
While the general premise of the film is promising, A Family Submerged does go nowhere. It chronicles Marcela’s crisis, but does never paint a full picture of her personality or her relationships. A lot of time in the film is devoted to her lengthy visions, which are entirely irrelevant beyond the mere symbolism. And even more time is devoted to curious dance, trance, or theatre sequences, of which you are never entirely sure if they are real or imagined. If you use such elements, they should be used sparingly, and they should mean something. Julia and the Fox , The Queen of Fear, or Interlude do this successfully. A Family Submerged seems to merely use these scenes as filler for lack of other material. The family dynamics and Marcela’s grief are two things that would have nicely filled a short film of 20 to 30 minutes in length. This feature film is just empty.
These odd “artistic” elements do not only bring the film to a grinding halt, they also create additional barriers between the audience and the film in terms of accessibility. I saw this film at a tiny arthouse cinema with a very small crowd that specifically came there to see a Latin American arthouse film. And still A Family Submerged managed to drive exactly 25% of the audience out the doors long before the credits were rolling.
For actress María Alche, this film is her feature film debut as a writer and director. Apparently she sought some advice on the script from others, including her mentor Lucretia Martel. Given what a disaster Zama was, and considering the more unwatchable elements of A Family Submerged, I was not surprised seeing Martel’s name pop up in the end credits.
On the plus side, the acting is really strong by everyone involved. The chief cast includes Marcello Subiotto, Laila Maltz, Ia Arteta, Federico Sack, and Esteban Bigliardi – with the latter having the most significant of the supporting roles. Naturally, lead actress Mercedes Morán is absolutely the centre of the film: Marcella is the only leading role and there is barely a scene without her. It is therefore important to stress that Morán’s performance is of the highest quality.
The cinematography is also very good, rising to several challenges, including capturing all the visions and dance performances, etc. I especially liked how the claustrophobic shots inside the family’s apartment reflects the fact that they are all getting on each other’s nerves despite trying to ignore each other. The musical elements are also interesting, for example the choice to give the music and sounds in some of the dance/trance interludes a quality that makes them sound like they come from outside the world of the film.
All-in-all, I will rate A Family Submerged at 4 out of 10 . It is not suitable for people unused to arthouse films. And it is also comparatively boring, although still slightly more watchable than The Maid.