In the 1990s, journalist Lawrence Wechsler began teaching college courses on “Settling Accounts with the Prior Regime.” “[I]t became almost a game,” he wrote: He’d ask each class what they thought should have happened in countries emerging from dictatorship.
Did they want truth and justice? To open the archives and punish the oppressors? Then he’d tell them about the former Czechoslovakia and East Germany, where opening the archives of Communist repression led to a frenzy of blame. People who had been coerced into informing or who had never actually informed at all were labeled as collaborators. So then the students would say, Ugh, maybe all we can hope for is a gradual transition to a peace based on willful amnesia. And their professor would point out that openly acknowledging prior regimes’ crimes had brought real solace in Brazil and Poland.
Wechsler’s point was not that every situation is so different that no principle can guide us through the labyrinth. His book A Miracle, A Universe: Settling Accounts with Torturers holds to a belief in the power of truth even as it acknowledges that truth-telling can threaten a fragile social peace. But he wanted his students to see that post-dictatorship societies often face irreconcilable conflicts between truth, justice, and order (for which the euphemistic term is peace).
The detective story presents the opposite of this grinding conflict. In a classic detective tale, the clues are collected, the facts are discerned, and Hercule Poirot rounds up all the suspects to reveal the truth, give the victims justice, and restore order. Society is at last in rough harmony, without mollifying lies or lasting injustices.
Marshland, the 2014 film from Spanish director Alberto Rodríguez which is still making the festival circuits here in the States, is a haunting combination of detective tale and truth-and-reconciliation case study. The film takes place in 1980, five years after the death of Gen. Francisco Franco. It’s got a classic buddy-cop setup, with a mismatched pair of homicide investigators—but our odd couple, Juan (Javier Gutiérrez) and Pedro (Raúl Arévalo), are a charming drunken fascist and a sensitive liberal democrat. Together, they fight crime!
The pair are sent to a rural Spanish town to investigate the disappearance of two teenage girls. From the moment they check into the local hotel—where a cross on the wall is flanked by photos of Franco and Hitler—they’re surrounded by the country’s inescapable political unrest. Workers strike, cars with loudspeakers roll through town blaring slogans, and abandoned buildings bear graffiti like LONG LIVE FRANCO—WE WERE VICTORIOUS AND WE WILL BE VICTORIOUS.
The local chief of police scolds these outsider cops: “I remind you that this is a democracy. Next time you want to arrest someone, ask me first. This country isn’t what it was!” But this pretty speech may simply have been a ploy to protect powerful interests, which Juan and Pedro’s investigations threaten. Every ideal is an alibi—the best kind of alibi, the kind people want to believe.
Marshland swept the Goya Awards, the Spanish equivalent of the Oscars. It won Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor (for Gutiérrez’s harrowed ladies’ man Juan), Best Original Screenplay, and more. It’s a tight script whose classic cop-film pleasures hide unexpected nuance and empathy. The film also won for Best Cinematography, and it opens with the soaring overhead shots that soon become a motif. We see the twisting waterways, like the coils of the brain, which make the land so difficult to traverse. The swamp is beautiful from far off.
The contrast between the two cops is unexpectedly flattering to the taciturn hard-liner Juan. He’s corrupt, but at least he’s not self-righteous. He’s a hard man, but he respects the locals and he’s at ease with them. Meanwhile Pedro, with his wife and child back home, has the rigidity of the moral man. The contrast even gets a bit Goofus and Gallant at times: Drunk Fascist volunteers to break the news of their daughters’ death to the parents; Sensitive New-Age Cop vomits at the sight of a corpse. Juan’s side has just lost, but that isn’t the source of his suffering. He’s haunted by what he did when he was winning. And he has no idea how to make amends, but maybe solving this one case will help…
At first I thought this was one of those obnoxious clichéd cop films where roughing up suspects always provokes them to tell the truth. Instead, hitting people works here—and Sensitive New-Age Cop Pedro even starts to use violence, to Drunk Fascist Juan’s dismay—but only when the people you beat up are innocent or tacitly complicit. The real criminals, the ones with power, can’t be beaten into honesty. All they’ll give you is a mocking, bloodied smile.
That still isn’t particularly true to life. Nobody’s intimidated into giving false information, for example. But it’s a synecdoche for the movie’s main theme: The cops are effective—up to a point. The search for truth succeeds, sort of; justice is served, to some people; the case is closed. A local crime is solved.
That crime has sordid motives, perverse and cruel. But there’s another crime in the film, committed out of political allegiance. Both cops, for their own reasons, long for justice in this matter too. And the movie’s ending leaves that crime unsettlingly unresolved. There’s a hint of forgiveness, a hint of forgetfulness. A hint that forgiveness can be a gentler form of corruption: the private decision to protect wrongdoers, the mercy that's also a coverup. And there's a hint of supernatural nemesis yet to come. For local justice you can call the cops, in Marshland, but if you want historical redress you'll have to wait for someone higher up.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.