TIFF Review: “El Agua”

Toronto International Film Festival 2022 North American Premiere

In a small river-side town in Spain, legend holds that every few decades when the river overflows, female residents disappear, an effect of the water’s desire to claim a woman who has recently fallen in love. Filming in her hometown and drawing on its own local legends, writer and director Elena López Riera’s debut feature film “El Agua”, which premiered at Cannes earlier this year, combines reality and myth to tell an intergenerational tale of women, their roles in society, and their resistance to the old ways.

“El Agua” is primarily centered around Ana (Luna Pamies), a teenager who lives with her mother (Bárbara Lennie) and grandmother (Nieve De Medina). They are all self-sufficient in their own way; her mother is single and runs a bar that Ana also works at, and her widowed grandmother still fondly recalls her husband’s touch as she relates stories of her past to Ana. But Ana is particularly headstrong. The loose opening scenes feel like part teen hang-out movie, part observational documentary, as Ana and her friends gather and gossip in the warm summer sun. Ana starts seeing José (Alberto Olmo) and soon falls in love after a series of passionate rendezvous, but their parents don’t approve of the relationship, and Ana’s desire to escape her rural town and its ancient customs puts her at odds with her family and the other townsfolk.

“El Agua”; image courtesy of TIFF

All the while, the threat of the river flooding and sweeping more women away looms, but rather than indulging in more overt magical realism, Riera opts for a grounded approach to the story. Occasional asides in which female townsfolk speak directly to the camera, recounting tales of previous floods and new brides disappearing, even more so take on the style of a documentary. Other documentary footage of past floods cut in with the narrative provide both visuals for their stories and a demonstration of the devastating effects of climate change on the region. Quiet moments in which the camera slowly travels down the length of the river, with no sound except the simmering score by Mandine Knoepfel, lend the body of water an air of mystery and menace and turn it into a character itself. But for the most part, Riera follows Ana closely, portraying how the local myths and the expectations placed upon her by both her gender and culture manifest themselves in ordinary interactions. The link between water—an element commonly associated with fertility— and women is obvious (the legend even states that the river takes women who “have the water inside”), but Riera uses it as a way to convey the burdens placed upon women and the lack of control they sometimes have over their lives, as the water threatens to sweep them away with no warning. Eventually, a frustrated Ana even attempts to goad the river into taking her if it’s going to take her, an effort to retain some of her agency when faced with a challenge she can’t seem to avoid.

“El Agua”; image courtesy of TIFF

Pamies is dynamic in her screen debut, as forceful as the rushing river waters, while effectively balancing Ana’s fears and uncertainties amidst her drive to make her own life and, as she asserts in the film’s powerful closing shot, tell her own story. By shooting in her hometown, where she also filmed her previous shorts, using family and friends as subjects, and basing her story off of legend her family told her, Riera has crafted a rapturous film that’s personal and intimate while pondering universal themes of womanhood.

Runtime: 104 minutes.

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