Cannes 2022 review: El agua (Elena López Riera)

El agua is a film that slowly envelops you until it sucks you under, spellbound by its marriage of realism and the supernatural, and presents Elena López Riera as a talent to watch.”

Men, women, mothers, daughters, sons, fathers. And connecting them all, the river. A film about the cycle of life, about looking for a better future, and about the most important thing in life, love. Elena López Riera’s debut El agua is a film that is strongly tied to its environment and community made by a filmmaker intimately familiar with the story she is telling. Much like Carla Simón’s Berlinale winner Alcarràs, where the director also stayed close to her roots, and which has many similarities to El agua. Another recent Spanish film El agua has a spiritual connection to is Jonás Trueba’s Quién lo impide, where youth culture too plays an important role and which, like El agua, also blends in documentary segments. Built around a local legend about women and water, El agua is yet another strong entry in what shapes up to be a new Spanish genre of sorts, leaning on a strong cast made up of newcomers and veterans alike.

It is summer in the town of Orihuela in the southeast of Spain. A group of youngsters is trying to get through the lazy hot days by partying, chatting, and hanging around in between their summer jobs. Two of them, 17-year-old Ana (Luna Pamiés) and 20-year-old José (Alberto Olmo), fall in love in the citrus groves of José’s father, but his father warns him about the girl. The female line of her family (no male line in sight) is cursed, he says. Many in this town which has been flooded repeatedly over the centuries still hold to the old beliefs of some women having “the water inside”, and these women are destined to disappear. As a storm brews, Ana and José make plans to leave town, but will that lift Ana’s curse?

López Riera was born in Orihuela, and her first-hand knowledge of the town and its people and legends is felt in every frame of El agua. Intermingled with the fictional story of Ana and José are segments in which actual women from Orihuela face the camera and tell their stories about these legends. This doesn’t fully clarify what this ‘water inside’ entails, but it furthers the authenticity of El agua as a film. The whole film simmers with the heat of summer to a soundscape of cicadas, and the story itself brims with ideas of female emancipation and a desire to leave town in search of a better life. Traditions are still strong in small communities like this, and that’s also true when it comes to the roles of males and females. There are many scenes of groups of people interacting, but these groups are almost always exclusively female or exclusively male, so the romance between Ana and José feels like a Spanish, sun-drenched version of Romeo and Juliet.

But El agua is much more than just a love story. Central to the film, as its title already implies, is the water and the irony of the people’s need for that which they fear most. There are saints to pray to for rain, and saints to pray to for not too much rain. Tie in religiosity, and suddenly these fears become about much more than the water. This is why it is so important that El agua shows women passing on these legends to the younger generations, because it shows the cycle of fear and the conservation of machismo. Again, there is a dichotomy: why perpetuate, almost perversely, that what oppresses you? Ana tries to go against this cycle, and the film’s screenplay, co-written by López Riera and French screenwriter Philippe Azoury, is structured in such a way that the legend is always in the background following Ana’s narrative, the climax of the film being the climax of this specific telling of the legend. The film ends with a strong feminist statement, as if the cycle is broken indeed and the curse is lifted in a nifty wrap-up.

El agua shows López Riera having a particular talent to capture the atmosphere and soul of a place, no doubt strongly helped by her ties to it, and also a keen sense of realistic human interaction, which shows in the naturalistic performances of the young cast of newcomers, but also of actors like Bárbara Lennie as Ana’s mother and Nieve de Medina as her grandmother. El agua is a film that slowly envelops you until it sucks you under, spellbound by its marriage of realism and the supernatural, and presents Elena López Riera as a talent to watch.