Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. María Alché's A Family Submerged is exclusively showing February 6 – March6, 2020 in MUBI's Debuts series.
My first encounter with the work of the Argentine director and actress María Alché was in 2016, at the Valdivia Film Festival, while watching two of her short films—of which the witty, emotionally crackling Noelia (2012) was particularly memorable. In the short, the actress Laila Maltz plays an unstable young woman who craves attention, and so clings to random, successive mother figures. If this whimsical debut didn’t yet hint at the full range of Alché’s directing capabilities, it certainly forecasted her skill in portraying complex, one might say, inscrutable women, with compassion and flair.
This complexity and, by now, more subdued humor combine handsomely in Alché’s accomplished first feature, A Family Submerged. The film revolves around Marcela, a middle-aged woman played by Mercedes Morán, whose introspective characterization is pierced through with warmth. Marcela’s grown-up children still live with her and her husband in their Buenos Aires apartment, but in many ways lead separate lives. Their autonomy and the sudden death of Marcela’s sister, Rina, makes Marcela suddenly feel unmoored.
In Alché’s direction, and thanks to Hélène Louvart’s tactile cinematography, Marcela’s mourning—her slowly letting go and finding strength in her loss—is rooted in everyday objects and gestures. In an early scene, Marcela opens her freezer to scoop up her sister’s old cake. We can almost feel its hardness, in a kitchen that Louvart shoots in cool blue tones, as if to emphasize the freezing effect. Marcela then scolds her daughter, Luisa (Maltz) for reusing Rina’s baking mold, as if it were taboo. She clings to her other daughter, Jimena (Ia Arteta), and croons, “You’re so big!” before letting her go. In a particularly telling scene, as Marcela peers at the chemistry tutoring session of her son (Federico Sack), she sees two drops, red and blue, merge into each other. This image of merging—a union, but also a state of being engulfed, disappearing—becomes the film’s central metaphor.
Louvart’s cinematography does wonders in constructing a sense of submersion. Marcela’s apartment has the specificity of the kitchen-sink, in terms of mise en scène, replete with clutter and malfunctioning appliances, but the quality of light—or sometimes, its dimness—transforms it into a mysterious, nearly subterranean space. This happens particularly when Marcela is alone, longing or brooding. The apartment then seems to engulf her in its murkiness.
Alché also achieves small miracles of staging. In the apartment, the constant comings and goings of Marcela’s children, their friends and tutors, of Rina’s old friends, et cetera, the negotiations for the always desirable bathroom (which so often proves a focal point in the Latin American films featuring big families) makes Marcela’s life seem busy enough but also empty, or rather, emptying out. In the film’s deliberately varied tempo, Marcela goes from being always on the move—consoling, dressing, admonishing—to suddenly sitting alone in a dark room, her television set as her lone companion.
Rina’s apartment, whose holdings Marcela must organize before it can be let go, is an invitation for her to step outside. Rina’s friends mention that she was a fascinating person—someone, we sense, Marcela isn’t, at least not in her own eyes. Rina has left behind her wigs, hats and myriad accessories. In one scene, Marcela slips on a pair of dark glasses, lipstick and a black wig and, as her son Nahael intones in a high-pitched voice, enacts an alluring pantomime in front of a mirror. Such moments, when Marcela tries out a more daring persona, with the help of her children, feel particularly tender. Alché, who herself starred in Lucrecia Martel's The Holy Girl (2004), is clearly at home capturing fleeting emotions of her ensemble cast.
In an interview at BFI, the French director Céline Sciamma said that to enter women’s lives one must share their loneliness. This is precisely the effect that Alché’s creates: Marcela’s solitude grows and amplifies, as she slowly inhabits her sister’s apartment. She’s not always alone. Elderly guests appear, though we can’t always be sure that they’re not ghosts of family members or Marcela’s imaginings. This is partly because these guests disappear as quickly as they emerge, and partly due to Marcela’s disassociation, as she twirls, wrapped inside Rina’s curtains, like in a cocoon. Even the light temperature changes—from the murkiness of Marcela’s apartment, to the bright cool light that floods Rina’s. In the delicately staged scenes, in which Marcela serves tea to the elderly companions, that light—oddly pale, washed out—makes it seem as if we’ve dipped into a different dimension, part memory and part fantasy.
Marcela slowly revives through a brief romance with a younger man, Nacho (Esteban Bigliardi), a friend of one of her daughters. Their encounter at Marcela’s home is wonderfully framed by, on one hand, the prosaic help that Nacho offers Marcela (trained in mechanics, he fixes her washing machine), and, on the other, their immediate and uncanny intimacy. As they chat in the kitchen, Marcela suddenly wretches violently into the sink. The jarring scene hints at the extent of Marcela’s tenseness. The anxious question that she earlier posed to her husband, “Can I count on you?” now finds an answer in a stranger.
Since Nacho expected to go abroad and gave up his apartment, he’s left stranded, unmoored. And so he joins Marcela on her trip, to visit an abandoned plot of land that belongs to her family. The land too turns out to be submerged: flooded and overgrown with reeds and, metaphorically, buried by her family’s willful silence about its past. In this murky terrain, Marcela finally unwinds. “I don’t know where we are,” she suggestively tells Nacho, and smiles.
Thanks to Alché’s nuanced script, the distance that Marcela carves out between her and her family by embarking on an affair doesn’t lead to a grand deception, or a permanent break. On the contrary, her flotsam romance grants her a respite, and then a way back. Marcela’s taste of autonomy makes her speak out at the next family dinner about her grandmother’s unhappy marriage and secret trysts with another man, in the country. It’s only then, once Marcela positions herself as a truth teller—an outer of family secrets—that she can reemerge.