Review: La piel pulpo (Ana Cristina Barragán)

“It may be challenging, but it carries a weight that can impress even the most cynical of viewers.”

In her ambitious sophomore directorial effort, Ana Cristina Barragán crafts a beautiful and harrowing coming-of-age drama in the form of La piel pulpo (translated roughly as “the octopus skin”). It tells the story of adolescent twins who have grown up with their mother and older sibling on an island in an unspecified part of the world surrounded by nothing but nature, while remaining extremely curious about the world that lies just beyond their rustic home. A film that moves through its narrative with a quiet gracefulness, La piel pulpo is filled to the brim with mysteries that the viewer is invited to unearth, following the director as she explores the lives of these two young people who are starting to develop a curiosity that will eventually cause them to step away from their surroundings and engage in a series of adventures. These adventures will bring them closer to understanding the broader world, as well as the reason their mother chose to keep them separated from it. Set in an indeterminable place, and where the temporal setting only becomes clear halfway through, La piel pulpo is a fascinating and experimental film that offers an intimate glimpse into an unconventional familial dynamic. It also offers a wealth of commentary on some of the more peculiar aspects of the human condition that form the foundation for the director’s provocative and deeply curious examination of society in relation to the rest of the world, particularly those that remain untouched by civilization.

The natural world plays a vital role in the construction of La piel pulpo. It is not at all surprising that Barragán constructs this film to evoke the sensation of a nature documentary in many scenes. Working with director of photography Simon Brauer – whose attention to detail in capturing every intricate facet of this idyllic, distant landscape results in some of the year’s most stunning cinematography – she arouses our curiosity as she depicts the lives of two people who have grown up enclosed in a world where they are more familiar with marine life than with their own species, but who grow ever more curious about what lies beyond their island home. Barragán creates a unique visual landscape, one filled with the most visceral imagery, offering an observational glimpse into the distant lives of individuals who are detached from civilization but grow intrigued by the possibility of encountering others, viewing the outside world as just an extension of this hypnotic landscape in which they have always been contained. There are many enigmatic aspects to this film, and the director draws on the most carnal emotions as she explores the relationship between the brother and sister whose connection to the hypnotic embrace of the ocean, which is both endless and intimidating, pushes them to surrender to their inquisitiveness and voyage away from home, unaware of whatever dangers await them as they try to momentarily find their way through modern society.

Throughout this film, Barragán seems to be motivated by the desire to explore the lives of people who have grown up in almost complete isolation. These characters exist on the margins of humanity, which is a fundamental theme that propels most of the film, informing its perspective as it explores this off-kilter version of the world. They are quite literally geographically isolated, their home being amongst the molluscs and marine life that populate the area around their island, which reflects the deeper concept of psychological and social separation. The contrast between the remote natural landscape and the recognizable, modern locations in which they eventually find themselves creates a very distinct discussion on humanity, one that is inextricably connected to the theme of wildlife. One could even make the argument that the director is using La piel pulpo as a metaphor for queer identities, where the immersion into a new world (here manifested in the form of the natural and modern landscapes) can be challenging, especially when someone is not quite sure how to navigate these uncharted waters. It also lends itself to a reading around the theme of metamorphosis and growth, with the protagonists navigating the ambiguous space between adolescence and adulthood, doing so without much guidance or support and essentially learning about life through observation rather than practical experience. There are numerous ways to read this film, and part of its impact is how the director allows us to form opinions through our own investigation of certain themes – every viewer will walk away with a different understanding of the material, which she executes with precision and complexity.

La piel pulpo is not an easy film to dissect, and it seems intentionally designed to rely on the viewer’s individual interpretation. There is not any clear resolution, and the director clearly signifies her reluctance to provide the audience with all the answers – it can be frustrating at first, but it becomes worthwhile once we manage to get onto the wavelength of the film. After having become acclimated to this version of the world (which is recognizable but still somehow uncanny) we can start to draw correlations between the vaguely surreal setting in which the story takes place and its real-world origins, which come through less in moments of exposition, but rather in the subtle implications, the main narrative currency with which Barragán is working. La piel pulpo is a precise, meaningful and complex psychological drama that utilizes beautiful cinematography, extraordinary performances (particularly by Juan Francisco Vinueza and Isadora Chávez, who are exceptional in the leading roles) and a series of disquieting but striking moments to tell a multi-layered story of desire, curiosity and the boundaries between society and the natural world. It may be challenging, but it carries a weight that can impress even the most cynical of viewers, with its unique worldview and very complex understanding of some deeper themes forming the basis of this astoundingly thought-provoking voyage into the heart of the human condition.