Cannes Film Festival 2022: EL AGUA: A Beguiling Mystery In Rural Spain

Every year at Cannes the Competition section gets all the big-ticket titles. This year there are new films from David Cronenberg, Claire Denis, Park Chan Wook, and so on. Bigger budgets, wider name recognition, and higher wattage stars, however, do not guarantee great films. And the converse is equally true—there are dozens upon dozens of intriguing films from star auteurs in the making scattered across the less buzzy parallel sections.

Nowhere is this more apparent than at the Théâtre Croisette, where all the films in the Director’s Fortnight are playing. There are some star directors in the lineup, including Mia Hansen-Løve, Pietro Marcello, and João Pedro Rodrigues, but at least half of the films are their directors’ first or second features. Spanish artist, programmer, and filmmaker Elena López Riera is one of the great discoveries of this year’s Director’s Fortnight. Her debut feature El Agua is a slow, seductive, and assured tale of young love and mysticism in an exquisitely rendered Spanish village.

The Power of Myth

El Agua centers on Ana (Luna Pamiés) a young woman at the age where all young people are desperate to leave where they grew up. Ana’s problem is that few people truly escape Ornella, her small, landlocked village in Southeastern Spain. She spends the days of the long, languorous summer the film chronicles working shifts at her family’s bar, flirting with new arrival José (Alberto Olmo), and lazing at the river with her friends.

That river runs through the center of town and winds its way into all aspects of the townsfolks’ lives. Riera captures the river’s course through daily activities with meditative grandeur—the black water that farmers flood the orange groves with at night, the tinted watercolor local men use to paint pigeon’s wings, the sluice of water and plaster used in construction.

Cannes 2022: EL AGUA: A Beguiling Mystery in Rural Spain
source: Cannes Film Festival

The water gets into more than just agriculture, industry, and recreation. In several tonally incongruent, but nevertheless effective direct to camera addresses, village women tell variations on a local myth, in which “the river falls in love with a woman” and takes her whenever there’s a monsoon. “The water gets into a woman,” Ana’s grandmother explains, “and she can’t resist it.”

The Chosen One

From the beginning, it’s clear that if the myth turns out to be a reality, it’s Ana who will be flooded and carried out by the river. “I’ve always been able to hear the groundwater,” Ana explains to José, who has his ear to the rock the same as Ana, but hears nothing. Ana finds herself drawn to the riverside, and has disturbing dreams at night of a bride in flight—whether she’s running from the river, or running toward it is unclear.

A storm looms on the horizon, the biggest one in years. As it passes through neighboring towns and floods them all, it seems only Ana and her grandmother can sense what may be coming. “I feel heavy, and I can barely breathe,” Ana gasps to her mother, and mingled in with the fear is a kind of pleasure and anticipation she can’t deny.

Showcase of an Active, Curious Mind 

El Agua does run a bit too long. Though it’s a gentle, flowing film, the mind strains under the weight of so many rich themes and densely layered ideas. By the end, you may feel as swept away as Ana, unsure whether you want to swim back to terra firma or venture further out.

But this is hardly a problem for a first feature filmmaker. Riera has previously made two shorts (the first, Pueblo, premiered at 2015’s Director’s Fortnight), and for the last few years has been exhibiting her art in galleries around the world. Hopefully, on the strength of El Agua, her filmmaking opportunities multiply. 

Cannes 2022: EL AGUA: A Beguiling Mystery in Rural Spain
source: Cannes Film Festival

One of Riera’s great achievements in the film is the seamless blend of low-stakes, sun-touched naturalism and allegorical fabulism. Neither overtakes the other; they are throughout held in a reciprocal balance, imbuing the Ornella with a tactile quality of familiarity. I felt as though I had walked the streets Ana walks, and swam in the river she and her friends swim in by the time I left the theater.

It is better that Riera made a film some could accuse of being overlong and overstuffed than another infernal vibe piece, full of mood but no life, no rigor, no meat. El Agua is a transportive tale of small town ennui and larger than life mystery. If you are patient, like the water, it will take you.

What do you think of the film’s mix of myth and reality? Let us know in the comments below!

El Agua premiered on May 20, 2022 at the Cannes Film Festival. Ryan Coleman is a part of the Unifrance Critics Lab.

Watch El Agua

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