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By Oliver Parker
Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s feature debut opens in a quixotic fashion, offering little exposition and dropping viewers straight into a scene of Noelia (Isel Rodríguez) taking a bath. Eventually, Noelia’s partner comes in to help clean a wound, the relic of a horrible battle with cancer, which seems to have returned though she is hiding it from her partner. This sequence acts as a nucleus to one of La Peceras major themes — a contention with our own mortality. Noelia soons confirms that her cancer has indeed returned, and that the prognosis isn’t hopeful. Exhausted from the relentless treatment that she’s already endured, Noelia decides to leave her current home life and return to Vieques, the eastern island of Puerto Rico where she grew up.
It appears that Noelia seldom returns to her hometown; given the morsels of information doled out to viewers, which can sometimes abruptly interrupt the story, we find that Vieques is an island with a difficult history and a tumultuous relationship with the U.S.. During the latter half of the 20th century, America used the island for munitions testing, which involved pummeling the island with bombs and conducting military training operations. Permeating the entire film is the lingering trauma that this horrifying practice has inflicted on the island’s natives; Noelia’s mother attempts to disarm and retrieve leftover bombs, while her friends conduct experiments on the water to test its toxicity. Unfortunately, this study of the legacy of colonialism and militarism is left underexplored, with its addition to the film often feeling more jarring than of genuine interest.
Despite La Pecera’s first 20 minutes edging toward surrealism (or an even more spiritual realm), the film largely remains naturalistic, rarely delving into or indulging any sense of eeriness or mystery. It’s a texture that’s notable in both the performances, which are on the whole quite good, and the cinematography. Visually, La Pecera boasts some arresting images — the murky hues of a sunset slowly fading on a desolate beach, a haunting reflection glimpsed in a mirror — but the handheld camerawork also too often lends a dissonance, the beauty of these static images butting up against the distracting (and literal) shakiness of the form. In general, the film lacks the stillness necessary to land with impact, surprising given the narrative; it only runs 90 minutes, but still feels frustratingly lacking in intent. This leaves some of the major plot points, especially in the final act, feeling rushed and landing with less intention than they ought to.
It’s perhaps best to view La Pecera as a treatise on taking control of one’s own life. Early in the film, Noelia’s partner continually tries to influence — to the point of almost controlling — her decisions. He soon becomes overbearing, which forces her to leave without him. And then there are the doctors, family, and friends who all attempt to exert some authority over Noelia’s actions despite her moves to defy them, repeatedly reminding them that she is not a child. This reflects La Pecera’s most fleshed out ideas, with the concept of self-determination being linked to the larger story of Vieques’ citizens attempting to regain control over their island from American influence.
But given how primed the film’s various plot threads of both a damaged community and a woman confronting the stark reality of death feel for a complex dissection of identity, mortality, and trauma, Marrero Sánchez’ only musters disappointingly tepid ruminations on any of them. La Pecera remains a sufficiently solid debut on the strength of its interesting, albeit sporadic, considerations, the filmmaker’s instinct for compositions, and dedication to naturalistic minimalism, all of which suggest great potential for the future. But this time out, the shortcomings are tough to ignore.