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Interview with Glorimar Marrero Sánchez, Director of La Pecera (Sundance 2023)
How do you navigate life when you know you’ll depart it very soon? Do you make amends? Do you atone? Do you make your last memories meaningful and impactful? Do you just wither away? Glorimar Marrero Sánchez ópera prima La Pecera introduces all these questions into the film but never gives you a simple answer.
La Pecera (The Fishbowl, in its English title) follows Noelia (Isel Rodríguez), a Puerto Rican woman who has discovered her lung cancer has metastasized and doesn’t have much longer left to live. So she decides to embark on a journey to Vieques to reconnect with her mother and choose how to live the rest of her days. In her voyage, she helps her community in the aftermath of six decades of military exercises that took place in her native hometown. Writer and director Glorimar Marrero Sánchez crafted a very somber, low-key melancholic character-driven piece with parallels to the real-life struggles of Puerto Ricans, specifically those living in Vieques. The film is set in 2017, during the height of the hurricane season, specifically on the eve of the imminent Hurricane Inma, which is not mentioned as much since it was quickly overshadowed by the infamous category 5 Hurricane María. So a chunk of the film is devoted to the denial and anxiety that the characters feel regarding the imminent threat of the hurricane at their doorstep.
Sánchez captured the authenticity and the emotions that were felt during these turbulent times through the performances and the slow burn poaching to accentuate the foreboding danger. The movie also emphasizes the conscientious sentiment behind the Marina, the exploitative nature of the Navy during those long 60 years of military operations that ensued, and the long aftermath that left Vieques in shambles. The stance in the film is evident and very real; it doesn’t mince words against how our oppressors used and abused our land for decades on end. These two real-life events are interwoven with this fictionalized story of the struggle of Noelia with a cancer that’s eating her from the inside out with the filth surrounding Vieques and how it’s also devouring the island. The way these themes contrast and parallel each other is done expertly well to create a type of lyricism with its themes and character study.
This intertwining between the two topics works very well since Noelia’s suffering becomes magnified to express the anguish that all Viequenses felt for so long, having to deal with an intruder, in this case, the American Navy, coming into their home, their sanctuary and their body. Noelia also seems to yearn for some type of freedom. Perhaps she might be freed from an unhappy relationship, the current socio-economic situation that she lives in, the social-political issues that the island of Vieques faces, or even freedom from the suffering that is currently dealing with her illness. This yearning is expressed by her long gazing eyes watching over horses running around the land freely. Noelia carries around her hair in plastic bags, perhaps as a reminder of the chemotherapy she endured the last time she had to deal with cancer and how she obviously doesn’t want to go through that again.
Noelia’s motivations don’t seem all that clear-cut, and I think that’s what makes the character so compelling since you’ll never truly know everything she’s feeling or thinking. Some might be left up for interpretation. Isel Rodríguez does a phenomenal portrayal of a woman at death’s door, juggling a wide array of emotions like existential dread, depression, and maybe a tad of hopefulness amidst all these dire circumstances. The hopefulness comes from the community and their constant drive to improve their personal lives and the lives of their neighbors in the aftermath of the Marina in Vieques. She carries a lot of the film, and even the quiet moments with her character give room for the audience to reflect and internalize all that Noelia, and as an extension, Vieques is going through. Magali Carrasquillo plays Flora, Noelia’s mother, where she brings warmth, care, and love to her role that feels earnest and true. She plays off of Isel Rodríguez realistically, and their relationship feels weathered, layered, and very strong. Carrasquillo plays Flora as a strong woman who is always helping the community and her family. Modesto Lacén as Juni also has a very realistic dynamic with Isel, feeling like a long and enduring friendship is reaching its inevitable endpoint. Finally, Maximiliano Rivas plays Jorge, Noelia’s significant other. Rivas feels like a stern, driven, and helpful character that wishes to help, even if the help feels unrequited by Noelia. All the actors portrayed characters that felt real and lived in, authentic and relatable.
Glorimar Marrero’s documentary background helps a lot in this film since it helps create this docu-drama approach to the piece, crafting these real-life events and circumstances with Noelia’s fictionalized but metaphorical journey. She worked on a short film Biopsy, which chronicled the voyage of a cancer patient and her journey from Vieques to San Juan to get a biopsy. This served as the basis for her feature La Pecera since the subject matter, and the journey of Vieques piqued her interest enough to develop a feature-length film with these topics. The basis of Biopsy informed maybe of the keen choices presented in the feature film, such as the struggles of battling cancer and the dire circumstances of Vieques and its community. Such choices as the usage of improvisation of non-actors and actual historical events help create these blurred lines and make the audience sympathize more with what’s happening in the film.
The cinematography by PJ López also has to be highlighted, showcasing many landscapes of the island in a grounded and gritty way. Darker color palettes and moodier tones overshadow the piece to add to the world that Glorimar Marrero has crafted. The pacing is pretty good, letting moments and scenes breathe just a tad more than they might need to, but it helps sell the emotions that Noelia is going through at any given moment. La Pecera engulfs us in a woman at the end of her life and how her life mirror’s our collective suffering in our native home. The film never gives you any clear answers but ponders the question of our lot in life and what imprint we will leave when we depart.