As A Family Submerged, María Alché’s directorial feature debut opens, we see the silhouette of searching fingers on a translucent curtain. Those fingers belong to Mercedes Morán’s character Marcela, who roams around a quirkily decorated apartment and opens the fridge, scanning for something to eat. She settles for the remains of a frozen chocolate cake, which awaits her with an already used spoon lying in the pan. Marcela takes a small bite and her face exquisitely portrays the melancholia she tastes. As this mesmerizing Argentinian film unfolds, we learn that the apartment and the forsaken cake belong to Marcela’s sister Rina, who died recently and whose possessions Marcela sorts through as she mourns her loss.
Rina’s eerily quiet apartment stands in contrast to Marcela’s own home, brimming with the sounds and chaos of the three teenage children she raises with affable patience and humor while her emotionally distant husband travels for work. In a performance that perfectly blends vulnerability and vigor, Morán helps us navigate this mid-life coming-of-age tale as Marcela becomes increasingly lost in meditations about her past and begins a relationship with Nacho, one of her daughter’s friends.
As Marcela shows Nacho some old family photographs at Rina’s apartment, she tells him, “I don’t know who this one is, and now I have no one to ask. They are all dead.” In one of the film’s most arresting sequences, we then watch two figures separately twirl inside Rina’s white curtains like a playful child would. As the figures slowly free themselves from their lace cocoon, we see not children but two old ladies in dramatic makeup who tell Marcela that they are her aunts. After a slight hesitation, Marcela offers them coffee and soon her aunts are looking at the photos and telling gossipy stories about the relatives they feature.
Rina’s apartment eventually turns into the gathering place for those who are long missing, and Marcela becomes an outsider in her own life, a visitor from a painful present into an idealized past where she’s not much more than a passive observer. It is through this perspective and through her tender connection with Nacho that she manages to figure out how to come of age all over again and find her own voice amidst the voices she has nurtured and put before her own for decades. Poetic, haunting, and nuanced, Alché’s writing and directorial style remind us of the compelling alchemy that unravels when women go behind the camera to tell the stories that define them.
Alexandra Hidalgo is an award-winning Venezuelan filmmaker, whose documentaries have been official selections for film festivals in 12 countries and been screened at universities around the United States, and whose videos and activist writing have been featured on The Hollywood Reporter, IndieWire, NPR, and Women and Hollywood. She is assistant professor of Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures at Michigan State University. Her video book Cámara Retórica: A Feminist Filmmaking Methodology for Rhetoric and Composition was published by Computers and Composition Digital Press in 2017. She is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of the digital publication agnès films: supporting women and feminist filmmakers.