Film Review: La Isla Minima (2014)

A police thriller which drips with sweat in the humid wetlands of the Doñana Natural Park, Alberto Rodriguez’s film follows the investigations of an ill-paired cop duo on the hunt for the murderer of two young girls. The Visigoth's Film of the Week is La Isla Minima...

The steamy, impenetrable landscape of desolate lagoons and rivers, and remote villages, serves as a potent metaphor for a past most of Spain is trying desperately to forget and cover up. It’s 1980. The first tentative steps are being taken into a new liberated Spain, but with all the corruption of the old Falangist regime still nailed into its society. Cops can still use the most odious methods to achieve their ends. The police department wants the case sewn up, by any means necessary. Javier Gutierrez is a hard-drinking, womanizing hellraiser. Raul Arévalo, is his uptight, serious partner, who believes his morals are a notch above.

Sent down by the Madrid homicide department to investigate, they find an isolated community at loggerheads because a strike by field workers has put the rice harvest at risk. The area is being strangled between this strike and a burgeoning drugs trade. Like their boat-rides through waterways hemmed in by thick vegetation, each investigative foray into the local community is thwarted by a conspiracy of silence between suspicious, backward locals.

That both the murdered girls themselves had a less than salubrious reputation, and that the two policemen looking for them are facing up to their own demons and have intensely different convictions gives this film an asphyxiating complex moral tension from start to finish, with a subtle socio-political undertow. Javier Gutierrez in particular is superb as Juan Robles, playing the gluttonous, amiable detective with an electric schizophrenic energy. The role of his partner Pedro Suarez is a new direction for the comic actor Raul Arevalo. Arevalo’s awkward physicality is a perfect fit for the subdued but haunted moralist, Suarez.

The relentlessly flat Doñana landscape’s remote and haunting beauty is captured in stunning style by the photographer, Alex Catalan, and is one of the principal highlights. The director Alberto Rodríguez has since said in interviews he dreamed up the film on the basis of an exhibition by the photographer Atín Aya of the Guadalquivir river subsidiaries, onto which he then tacked dozens of noir-ish novel and film influences, ranging from the Hungarian director Ladislao Vajda’s It Happened in Broad Daylight to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown and John Sturges’ Bad Day at Black Rock. La Isla Minima blew the critics away, becoming the most eagerly received Spanish film of the year, and winning ten Goyas when it came out in 2014.

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