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If we look at dramas revolving around the lives of cancer patients, they often tend to be highly sentimental. There is an undeniable sadness and pain in the lives of those who go through the turmoil besides the agony of those who choose to support them during those times. Despite having sympathy for such characters, such dramas can get tedious due to a boring monotony that overlaps most of them. ‘La Pecera’ (English Title: The Fishbowl) departs from melodramatic overtones. It rather uses a distinctly subdued way to showcase a phase of emotional remission from the life-threatening disease.
Instead of revolving the narrative solely around the character’s deteriorating health, La Pecera focuses on other aspects that the character gravitates toward. Noelia (Isel Rodriguez) whose cancer had shown improvement in the past few years, starts noticing her worsening condition. After going through years of treatment and medication, she is tired of the emotional toll it takes on her and wishes to find a way out. While living away from her homeland, she finds herself in a conundrum. When it is difficult to resist the inevitable, how would you choose to live your life?
While reckless handling of this contemplation could have resulted in a middling impact, La Pecera sensitively navigates the root of Noelia’s agony. Her partner, Jorge makes every effort with earnest intentions. But his determination to get her to a better state starts suffocating her. On one side, she cannot outrightly insult him since there is no ill intent in his support. On the other hand, she starts questioning whether recovery is what she should invest this part of her life in. We see this chasm sensibly handled without any overt expositions to ruin its impact.
In this mental state, Noelia returns to her homeland of a Puerto Rican Island. She starts looking for traces of the place she left and the place it has become. Due to years of army operations of the United States on their land, it has suffered from harmful contamination. She tries to be a rebel for this cause and to fight something beyond her physical pain. Despite all the painful effects of her worsening condition, she is committed to devoting her life to save this place from being exploited further.
A still from La Pecera by Glorimar Marrero Sanchez, an official selection of the World Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.
Since her childhood, she experienced pain in various ways. Witnessing all the tragedies the island was subjected to, is one of them. A visit to this place gives her an opportunity to personally look into the pressing issues of these people. In her journey, there is also a sense of going back to the place she came from and finding a sense of comfort of familiarity. While spending her time with the local revolutionaries, she chooses not to share the diagnosis of her disease with her mother.
The subject of perception comes into play, where a limiting environment is precisely what she does not want. She craves freedom from being considered a victim of the disease that had tied her hands until then. While bringing up the subject of geopolitical clashes, Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s film walks on a thin line between comfort and pain.
The writing finds a great balance of its elements and seamlessly transitions between different emotions. At one moment, Noelia lectures her mother about the global affairs affecting the land that she grew up on. In the very next, they embrace each other with a warm hug. None of it feels contrived. It rather conveys how a close-knit bond can swing between such contrasts. Meanwhile, larger issues organically seep into their casual conversations.
With a mix of personal and political elements, the film creates a wide emotional cavass for the actors to work upon. Isel Rodriguez’s arresting lead performance finds all the nuances and exhibits them with reverence for Noelia’s anguish. With a fear of a potential volcano looming over these islanders, the film presents a moving contemplation on life and death. It deals with the tug-of-war for Isela between both ends – between an unflinching acceptance of the inevitable and a painful struggle for survival. Much of the film’s emotional potency depends on how sensibly it tackles these contemplative elements and creates a cerebral cancer drama.