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THE MOVIE BUFF, “Sundance 2023 Review: ‘La Pecera’ Offers a Glimpse Into Puerto Rican Cinema’s...

Updated: Feb 6, 2023

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By Héctor González

While “La Pecera” (The Fishbowl) may not play with the magical realism it hinted at during its first act, which paves the way for an unvaried story we have seen many times before, Glorimar Marrero Sánchez showcases with precision (although without acute enactment), the struggles of facing death and the melancholic denial that comes with it. Additionally, it offers a glowing glance into Puerto Rican cinema’s future.

From James L. Brooks’ “Terms of Endearment” to Ingmar Bergman’s “Cries and Whispers,” many films rely on intertwining illness and death. Most of them are seen from the perspective of a family (which, on most occasions, is broken or separated). It is a narrative guide that many directors have used, but not to full effect. Of course, there are a few exceptions (precisely, the aforementioned Bergman picture). However, most of them don’t explore with an expressive texture the melancholic aspects of constantly denying (or facing) death after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. A melodramatic affair isn’t what we want to see. That’s the traditional approach that most directors pursue, primarily for award ticketing and appraisal. If the filmmaker at the helm becomes playful with their craft and savvy with the topics being tackled, you might see a film of high intrigue, both cinematic and thematic-wise.

Sparks of Magical Realism in ‘La Pecera’

There are sparks of this in Glorimar Marrero Sánchez’s “La Pecera” (“The Fishbowl,” its English title), where she implies the use of magical realism to showcase the nature of pain, healing, and reverence. Nevertheless, the film ultimately falls into familiar territory once the second half arrives. It leaves us with a sense of fulfillment yet offers a bright glimpse into the future of Puerto Rican cinema’s future. “La Pecera” is set in 2017, days before tragedy strikes Puerto Rico as Hurricane Irma closes in as the days go by. There’s a menacing sensation of unease in the air; we already know something terrible will happen. At the center of the impending turmoil lies Noelia (Isel Rodriguez), whose cancer has returned and is spreading quickly. Her daily living is now being tampered with, as she’s exhausted by the relentless treatment plans and pills that numb the pain.

She needs urgent care, but Noelia only wants another way out. She wants to escape — denying fate as it may curse her mental being. So, Noelia heads back to Vieques, the eastern Puerto Rican island where she grew up. Without hesitation, she packs her bags and leaves Jorge behind because his suffocating, ultimately caring gestures drive Noelia mad. And it is understandable. After your fate is almost sealed, you begin contemplating the fact that it is inescapable. When this small part in the story occurred, my viewing experience began to fracture. The act of Noelia leaving everything behind, including his partner, feels thematically reasonable. Still, when you look at the story’s structure, it is a plot contrivance rather than a fully realized idea. This happens out of the blue.

A Somewhat Rushed Narrative Finds the Film

There isn’t much explanation or reason narrative-wise, hence my frustration toward “La Pecera’s” rushed narrative decisions. On a more positive note, the film presents some enticing ideas in its story, capturing the melancholia crossing through Noelia’s mind in a naturalistic way. Glorimar Marrero Sánchez intertwines the impending damnation of the hurricane with the cancer growing inside Noelia. This sensation of dread in those who cross their paths. Inevitability plays a crucial factor in this intersection between the two subjects, as one knows the aftermath of the natural disaster in Puerto Rico. This causes the narrative to have a more profound effect if you are from the island. “The Fishbowl” doesn’t focus much on our fear of death but on having the courage to face it.

It also reflects how returning home is both a gift and a curse. Having to face family members, knowing that your time is running out in this world, is heartbreaking. Isel Rodriguez’s facial expressions work like magic, as her reactions demonstrate the critical factor of inevitability — despair amidst acceptance. The moments where beauty and dread meet are the best scenes in “La Pecera,” guided by Isel Rodriguez’s mesmerizing leading performance. I wish the director had used the magical realism she implied at the film’s beginning. Some images hint at using such a cinematic visual strategy, but it never showcases it to its full potential. Unfortunately, not many Puerto Rican films rely on magical realism to tell their story. This could have been the difference maker, portraying the angst and acceptance of forthcoming death through imagery rather than words.

Glorimar Marrero Sánchez lifts ‘La Pecera’s Struggling Moments

Some moments lack the emotional heft to reflect their ideas, but that alone doesn’t diminish the entire feature. There are still enticing ideas about cessation and yearning lingering around its ninety-minute run-time. “La Pecera” shows different sides of the Puerto Rican cinematic language, mainly filled with head-achingly terrible comedies. Glorimar Marrero Sánchez has enough talent to lift the dull moments of her latest work. Even though it isn’t the complete success I hoped for, I remain optimistic for Puerto Rican cinema’s future because of films like this.

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