Elena López Riera’s The Water subverts the coming-of-age story by adding a much-needed layer of postmodern feminism.
Climate change and its effects have been at the forefront of what preoccupies contemporary Spanish cinema auteurs. Just in 2022, we saw directors Carla Simón and Sonia Castelo deal with agricultural displacement in Alcarrás, Rodrigo Sorogoyen take on the eco-thriller with his devastating The Beasts (As Bestas), and first-time filmmaker Elena López Riera set a coming-of-age tale within the context of a potential climate crisis in The Water (El Agua), which was part of the International Selection at the Istanbul Film Festival.
Set in the town of Orihuela, a small Spanish city divided in half by the Segura River, The Water focuses on the legacy of patriarchal myths and the danger of unchallenged storytelling as seen through three generations of women. Ana (Luna Pamiés) is a teenager living with her mother Isabella (Bárbara Lennie) and grandmother Angela (Nieve de Medina). The three women, who make their living from a bar they own, have become unwilling Amazons living in a kind of isolation created by the stories told about them.
For many townsfolk, the women have been cursed (blessed?) to a life without men, creating a matriarchal legacy defined by the men who have abandoned them. The sorcerer behind the curse is the Segura itself, a river that spends most of its time in a state of semi-drought, but which every now and then floods the city in search of a woman it has fallen in love with. When the water wants you, the only choices are to surrender yourself to it and quench its thirst by offering yourself as a human sacrifice or to defy it and try to escape.
Although Ana doesn’t necessarily abide by the stories of what happens when “the water gets inside you,” she has grown up knowing that the water should be feared, especially if it wants you. The summer during which The Water takes place has Ana in the throes of first love, as she begins a romance with Jose (Alberto Olmo) a teenage “guiri” (the word used in Spain to identify foreigners who stand out because of their differences) who with his fantastical stories of living abroad has offered Ana an opportunity to dream of an escape.
What Ana wants to escape; however, isn’t the river itself, but an existence limited by what society expects from her. Although she doesn’t know exactly what she wants to accomplish in life, she knows she needs to be an agent of change in her own destiny.
Observed by López Riera with the eye of a documentarian (in fact the film is interspersed with interviews with local women who speak about the legends of the water they grew up listening to), The Water subverts the coming-of-age story by adding a much-needed layer of postmodern feminism, in which Ana embodies the archetype of the hero and realizes it won’t be Jose or society who rescue her from the impending flood.
It must be stated that although López Riera builds an Amazonian world (men show up rarely and when they do they represent disappointment, egocentrism, and cowardice) she is able to sustain the uniqueness of her world through elements like music (in church the women sing about a boat rescuing souls, at the club Ana and her friends dance to songs about the inadequacy of men) so that when reality and myth come together in the spectacular finale, we are thrown into the very world Ana is trying to escape.
Leaving The Water, the world feels a little bit different, as if the water molecules that compose most of our body have been activated by the story they’ve witnessed, in which López Riera is able to balance the weight of centuries-old storytelling by reminding us that we too have the power to wash away what hurts us.
Edited by Marietta Steinhart
© FIPRESCI 2023