A woman striken by cancer returns to the island of her birth in this uneven Puerto Rican debut

The Fishbowl

Source: Sundance Film Festival

‘The Fishbowl’

Dir/scr: Glorimar Marrero Sanchez. Puerto Rico, Spain. 2023. 92mins

A Puerto Rican woman returns to her island home to negotiate the emotional, physical and political consequences of her impending death in The Fishbowl, a striking but uneven debut from Glorimar Marrero Sanchez that feels somewhat less successful than the committed central performance from Isel Rodriguez that drives it. That said, this is a thought-provoking meditation on the impact of the political on the personal, and on how women’s bodies become the battleground for men’s struggles – urgent and contemporary themes that should see this film appeal to festivals with a feminist and political slant.

Less successful than the committed central performance from Isel Rodriguez that drives it

Marrero Sanchez’s website highlights her previous work in short and video art as highlighting grief, identity, colonialism and gender – and indeed The Fishbowl takes on all four. Noelia (Rodriguez) has previously had cancer and now it has returned. Although the physical effects are evident, she seems to be in a state of denial about her illness: when her doctor tells her that the cancer has spread, it becomes clear that she’s been hiding her condition from her partner Jorge (Maximiliano Rivas).

Taking the the decision to decline treatment, Noelia abandons Jorge and leaves San Juan for the island of her birth, Vieques, a broken paradise that was formerly a testing ground for the US military. This has wreaked environmental havoc on the area in the form of unexploded bombs and a contaminated water supply, and Noelia joins her angelic mother Flora (Magali Carrasquillo) and old friend Juni (Modesto Lacen) in their campaigning to raise awareness of these issues. Meanwhile, there’s another threat on the horizon: Hurricane Irma, which caused destruction across Central America in 2017.

The focus of The Fishbowl is ultimately on the human rather than the political, which perhaps becomes too much of a backdrop to Noelia’s personal drama as she has hesitant conversations with her mother, which are recorded at great length. She also enters into a brief sexual relationship with Juni.

The film is definitely not an overwrought tearjerker, however; its style throughout is muted. Noelia is portrayed as anything but a model victim – indeed, one of the protesters tells her in no uncertain terms that the last thing their cause needs in another martyr. A bit of a loose cannon all round, she is impulsive, thoughtless and selfish, and her return to the island after so long is regarded with suspicion by some.

But Rodriguez maintains her sympathy for Noelia by playing up her bravery of spirit as she battles through immense physical pain – though in another of the odd little ellipses that are dotted throughout the film, we never learn why Noelia has decided to sacrifice herself to the disease rather than to try treat it. This is particularly strange since there are clear parallels to be made between the colonisation, so to speak, of Noelia’s body by the cancer and the US military’s colonisation of the area with its technology: oddly, Noelia’s self-sacrifice might come across as a further victory for the coloniser.

The film shuttles intense key moments and drawn-out, intimate shots of exchanges between the characters or, sometimes, poetic, dreamy images of Noelia alone, where momentum is lost. This is despite Rodriguez’s sterling efforts and the trembling delicacy of some of these scenes – Noelia’s fingers, for example, trailing though the surface of the moonlit ocean as she takes a night-time boat ride with Juni. Though Marrero Sanchez is generally alert to the avoidance of cliché, some new visual twist needs to be introduced if the motif of a person floating underwater is to be reactivated for cinema. That said, the final image is very striking indeed, not only bringing things neatly full circle but also helping to explain the meaning of the title, which for most of the film eludes us. 

Production companies: Solita Films, Auna Producciones, Canica

International sales: Visit Films info@visitfilms.com

Producers: Glorimar Merrero Sanchez, Jose Esteban Alenda, Amaya Izquierdo

Cinematography: PJ Lopez

Production design: Migdalia Luz Barens Vera

Editing: Clara Martinez Malagelada

Music: Sergio de la Puente

Main cast: Isel Rodriguez, Modesto Lacen, Maximiliano Rivas, Magali Carrasquillo