Like she did in her debut film XXY (2007), the first sequences of writer/director Lucía Puenzo’s The Fish Child (2009) submerge us in a dream-like submarine world. While the beginning credits fade in and out we can fly (well, swim) in our imagination and recollection of memories.
According to Roland Barthes, the ultimate goal of any literary work is to make the reader participate as a producer of the text instead of a consumer. This fantastic film is based on her first novel with the same title (published in 2004 when she was just 23 years old). and we feel in every part of the story that she is not only a great storyteller, but at this early stage in her filmmaking career, she is becoming a great director as well.
The film score (originally composed by Andrés Goldstein and Daniel Tarrab, who also composed for XXY), the narration, the suspense, the dreams, all get us into a journey that beyond the images on the screen, let us create our own sequences like we do when we read a book. But Puenzo never abuses of that resource: everything is appropriate.
The story lays on the Guarani legend of the fish child (mitay pirá), who inhabits the Ypoá lake in Paraguay, and guides the drown people to the bottom of the lake. La Guayi (Mariela Vitale), a Paraguayan maid who has been employed by an Argentine rich but dysfunctional family since she was a young teenager, introduces this legend. Lala (Inés Efrón, also the star of XXY) soon falls in love with La Guayi – and so does Lala’s father Bronté (Pep Munné), a fact that turns this story into a sea of jealousy, fury and unconditional worship. The two girls plan a dream life together somewhere in Paraguay, and to that extent they start stealing from Lala’s parents. But if a runaway and a lesbian forbidden love look complicated, things will get even worse after a mysterious death and the new presence of Sócrates (soap opera star Arnaldo André), Guayi’s father.
Puenzo digs one more time into the exploration of sexuality and acceptance, this time with a bigger role of seduction rather than curiosity – we could now perhaps expect her next film to be about sea and sexuality completing a trilogy. La Guayi sings in Guarani: “The moon is singing to me, while I sing for you, so you can sleep my baby, so you can sleep my baby.” Bronté, who doesn’t care about anybody’s feelings (probably not even about himself) explains that it’s exactly what Guarani women did with Spaniards conquerors: singing to them to mesmerize them; La Guayi mesmerizes everyone in the film – myself included.
Cinematographer Rolo Pulpeiro (Emir Kusturica’s Maradona by Kusturica) shot this picture in 16mm, and captured the scenery so well that we can even feel the dry and arid climate without a word from the characters, also playing wonderfully with the use of shadows.
Another attractive element is brought by the presence of dogs and his trainer El Vasco (Diego Velázquez), who is close friend of Guayi and will help the girls with their passionate goal. Serafín, the girls’ dog, plays a passive but interesting role – check the book to find out why he’s not just an ordinary dog.
The performances are very convincing – especially the two girls – in this dark and poignant tale produced by Oscar winner Luis Puenzo (Lucía’s father) among others. Lala devotes herself completely to La Guayi, especially when she cuts her precious hair. With this action as a symbol of loyalty, Lala suffers but hopes – that the hair will grow, and that Guayi will stay with her, like the fish child legend, even in the bottom of the lake.