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SCREEN SPECK, “’La Pecera’ – The Ramifications of Environmental Racism (Review)” by Josie Meléndez

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Trigger Warning: This film has discussions of a terminal illness.

We’re never truly prepared for when the ghosts of our past come back to haunt us. Trauma tests the body and puts it through the wringer, leaving it in a constant state of neutrality. When you’re only built to learn how to survive the day-to-day, what’s left? What becomes of your soul?

It’s another year of festival mayhem in Park City, and Sundance offers a wide selection of diverse films. For the first time, a Puerto Rican film premiers in Sundance’s World Cinema Dramatic Competition. La Pecera, or The Fishbowl, is the product of a co-production between Puerto Rico and Spain.

Glorimar Marrero Sánchez builds a perfect picture of suffering in a version of Puerto Rico about to face disaster. It doesn’t drown you with the propaganda of resilience. Set in 2017, we follow Noelia (Isel Rodríguez), an editor drawn to her surroundings and often driven by an impulse to capture what presents itself at the moment. Soon enough, she discovers her cancer has metastasized after several years in remission. Instead of seeking treatment, she leaves her life behind, including her long-term partner, and vanishes without a trace.

Isel Rodríguez as Noelia in La Pecera (COURTESY: Sundance Institute)

In reality, she returns to her hometown of Vieques, Puerto Rico, a smaller island off the coast of Fajardo. It’s one of the 78 municipalities, or counties, on the island well-known for its roaming horses, failing healthcare system, and the toxins feeding into the people due to the military contamination left behind by the U.S. Navy. The same contamination that’s responsible for the high cancer rate in the municipality’s population. She decides to remain here, although there is nothing there that can help her condition.

Vieques was a testing ground for napalm, depleted uranium, agent orange, and other toxic munitions by the U.S. Navy. There were many protests from 1999 through 2003 due to the accidental death of a Vieques local, David Sanes. The people of Vieques, Los Viequenses, were able to force the military to withdraw and abandon their operations in May 2003. Many of the bombs remain and often detonate without warning, sporadically across the island. This causes great distress to the locals.

Marrero Sánchez can effortlessly weave this distress into Noelia’s narrative, orchestrated beautifully through such a commanding performance by Isel Rodríguez. It’s been a while since I’ve witnessed such a subtle performance that speaks volumes. It’s inspiring and upsetting. She’s not alone. Modesto Lacen and Magali Carrasquillo fill the room with such warmth and energy through their performances. It leaves a bittersweet taste with the film’s final shot.

Isel Rodríguez as Noelia in La Pecera (COURTESY: Sundance Institute)

Noelia’s health worsens, but she continues to go on as if nothing’s wrong. She crashes with her mother and even rekindles a romance with an old flame. However, Noelia ultimately wanders her old stomping grounds like a ghost. She wants to help, even volunteering to aid with local efforts to clean up their beaches. Yet, she can barely make a difference. Her anger for her condition translates to anger towards the environmental racism and the colonial effects they are all suffering.

Puerto Rican films have graced numerous festivals in recent years, such as Macha Colón’s Perfume de Gardenias and Juliana Maité’s Receta No Incluída. La Pecera joins the club as one that isn’t afraid to put a face to the abuser. It quickly becomes a story about the survivors that refuse to be defined by their trauma. It’s a gracious middle finger to what the people of Puerto Rico must endure. It’s also a beacon of hope and a promise that the future of Puerto Rican cinema is bright.

Rating: 7/10

La Pecera made its world premiere at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 23, 2023. The film is set to receive its European premiere as part of the Ingmar Bergman Competition at Sweden’s Göteborg Film Festival, which runs from Jan. 27-Feb. 5.

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