I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
The Argentine filmmaker on colonialism, recreating history, and Zama.
Adapted from Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 existentialist novel par excellence, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama picks up an inquiry into Latin American identity wholly consistent with the auteur’s first three films: across La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman one could trace an unsparing diagnosis of the ossified middle class (and beyond-oppressive Catholicism) of her northern hometown of Salta. Zama rolls the clock back to the late eighteenth century, centering on a dissatisfied agent of Spanish empire—the nominal Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), stationed indefinitely in the Paraguayan backwater of Asunción. While he awaits a letter from his higher-ups that will initiate his transfer to a more important province where he will be reunited with his wife and child, one wonders if this career opportunity was ever on the table to begin with.
You’ll find yourself asking: Who does this narrative really belong to, and why? While Di Benedetto’s novel stressed Zama’s status as an americano born to colonizers, his obsession with a pure bloodline (and the prestigious job title to match) forms the backbone of Martel’s adaptation—and Zama is indeed her funniest film to date. Fate is obstinately uncooperative; Zama’s outsize expectations reach a slow ebb that recalls the cyclical nightmares of Sartre and Unamuno, but nothing so much as Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. The further Martel takes us afield of the sword-and-bible epic typical to the subject matter, the deeper Zama burrows into the deflated psyche of its would-be conquistador—and the countervailing disappointment leads to a mythic quest unto itself.
Literal dozens of logos from international financing organizations bookend Zama’s credit sequences, speaking to the rarity of Martel’s uncompromising approach. This is a work that defies easy categorization on first and second viewings, a tragicomedy about a man fighting uphill to suffice as protagonist in his own life story. As scabrous as it is majestic, Zama was ready to be the best film of 2017 after premiering at last September’s Venice Film Festival; following an aborted (and courageous) stab at official submission for a Foreign Language Oscar, it must instead be the best film of 2018.
Steve MacfarlaneDuring the Q&A at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, you mentioned the idea of inventing the past. How important is that to you—achieving period accuracy, versus creating a world from scratch?
Lucrecia MartelWhat is history if not one big invention? As much as we try to study the past in archeological ways, we really have no other option than to author it. In the case of Latin America, the continent was taken over completely, so there’s even more reason to do so. Everything we now know was written by those who won the battle. For me, it’s really a political position, since we needed to recreate that past using common sense. I used many pre-established details, like the costumes from the province of Chaco, which is in the northeast of Argentina and the south of Bolivia, bisecting Paraguay and Brazil a bit. Chaco has a great many indigenous communities, which have seen a lot of fighting. It finally gave in toward the middle of the twentieth century. So what I did not want to show was a complete submission of the slaves or indigenous people. I made other gestures instead. I’m not trying to say what I show is likelier than what has been traditionally told, but I felt the need to make an alternate hypothesis.
SMI’ve read this film was a bit maddening to finish. Can you say why?
LMOn weekends we would get together with the producers and ask if maybe we should stop production. Shooting was very tiring, of course, but after finishing the first cut I got very sick and was bedridden for about eight months. After that illness, I took everything back up and made some changes, then a few more, and then even more, right up to two weeks before the premiere. [It’s September 2017] and I really hope not to make any more!
SMIs that still even a possibility?
LMWell, when we had the screening in Venice, we noticed some scenes were too dark. So we had to enable the movie for projection in theaters that are not as perfect. In South America the screens aren’t always so reflective, and I want it to be seen as clearly as possible.
SMI don’t mean to be disrespectful, but is there any way that eight-month period of infirmity helped you see the film differently?
LMI couldn’t tell you exactly how, but the answer is yes. My process with the sound came then. Something was liberated, and there were some small conceptual changes. I added a lot more ambient noise to the soundtrack.
SMIt seems extraordinarily difficult to adapt a novel that’s essentially one long internal monologue, at least without falling back onto really bad dialogue or voice over.
LMMy biggest challenge was to get into the mind of this character. One trick I feel worked is this: when other actors are speaking, they’re off-screen, and you’re seeing Zama’s face. All of those voices begin to seem like one. I knew from the very beginning, while writing the script, that I would do it this way—and that it might not work.
SMDid this idea create obstacles, either in the shoot or edit?
LMThe film was already so guided in this direction that it would have been difficult to use any other approach to casting or editing. If you make a small change, it runs through the rest of the film. Often, movies that aren’t plot-based depend on these kinds of details. It’s difficult to ask a viewer to give into a movie when they’re seeking that plot, that guide, because they could tire easily. But without it, you give yourself a lot more.
SMSo in a sense, the subject of the film is Zama’s face. How did you decide Daniel Giménez Cacho was the one to represent el corregidor, this quintessential colonial figure?
LMI read the book in January of 2010 and began writing in August 2011. The first email to Daniel was sent in 2012, so it was pretty early on. When I spoke with my longtime assistant Fabianna, she suggested him first and I agreed. We had wanted to work with him on an adaptation of the science fiction comic El Eternauta, so we had him in mind already, very much so.
SMI know you have an interest in “low” culture—B-movies, comics, et cetera. There were times the roving camera and flat lighting reminded me of a soap opera (which is a compliment actually). Is there a certain type of film you’re trying to spoof?
LMNo, what I had in mind was Latin American television back in the 1960s, that kind of lighting—also, the music shows of that same period, and later in the ‘70s, when they came in color. I didn’t want to have a sullen image like an old painting. Sometimes I feel the past is very much associated with such paintings, and this is an error. Our job is to try to rid the past of all such preconceptions.
SMAfter Zama and his fellow mercenaries are absorbed into a hostile community, there’s a signature frame I recognize from all your other movies. The only way I can describe it is to say that you’ve blocked all the actors on top of each other.
LMI love scenes with lots of people. It’s a lot of work and choreography to accomplish this, and we organize with directorial assistants to get the movement right for each such shot. It’s also very difficult to come up with the visual concept of the movie overall; it actually takes me until about the second week of shooting to see that happen. From the beginning, though, it’s very clear where I want to go with the sound.
SMYou mean the sound mix, or the texture?
LMThe sound concept—like, which sounds are on and off, how the weather is going to be, what I will add later, how to make the actors aware of these things.
SMThe first week’s material, before you’ve made a routine of the visual language and you’re just trying things out, does it get thrown out?
LMAs much as I’ve tried to do so, no. We have such a limited budget that it must be used somehow.
SMIf you had a bigger budget, would you have made a longer or more uncompromising narrative?
LMIt actually helps to have a small budget. It helps me to be more austere, in a sense. I always thought if I had a lot of money I would make very bloated, ostentatious movies. It’s luck, perhaps, that I don’t have much.
SMYou’re associated with the New Argentine Cinema. But to what degree are these movements or categories made up?
LMIt’s an invention, like any other category—just an attempt to group one generation’s mess. I don’t really think I have that much in common with New Argentine filmmakers. I’m not sure if these other directors share this idea, but there was a problem with language for our generation. For me, actors spoke in a way that didn’t represent us as Argentinians. So we started experimenting, which lead to working with nonprofessional actors and so on. Otherwise, those who didn’t dare go against the grain, but who couldn’t work with such dialogue, were silent. When faced with the challenge, they remained silent. I sometimes feel their silence was imposed.
LMMany in this younger generation didn’t speak up. A lot of them felt lost, and sometimes their intention was to be cool, rather than to challenge the old narratives. Also, our history has this huge black hole called the dictatorship. The new generation came after a dark era, but they were not discussing things in a philosophical or political way.
SMOne of the reasons I find film festivals kind of heartbreaking is that you can have really bold and uncompromising visions beside films patterned on the style of Hollywood, made for export.
LMIf Argentina offered conditions such that people wouldn’t have to submit to the idea of the festival system, there would be more Argentine films. It’s a shame, because I really feel these export filmmakers you mention wish to work in cinema. They just find the fastest and easiest way.
SMThis wasn’t true for your generation?
LMIn some cases, yes. But it’s been more like a social commitment. Many directors want to be accomplished like Guillermo del Toro or Alejandro Iñárritu, doing something in Hollywood—though maybe not necessarily for Hollywood, but at that level. In the States, you have Paul Thomas Anderson, but in Argentina the way he works, his budget, is impossible. The markets are very different in size.
SMAre you a cinephile?
LMNo, because I come from Salta, where I had no access to arthouse cinema as a child. But I did have an addiction to oral narratives and was fanatical about Westerns—not that I learned every fact about those movies, just more that I would play along. Being a cinephile is not only about seeing them but also living them. I always carried a pistol.
LM I would wake up wanting to be in a Western, then carry my revolver. No one knew but me; it was a plot only I was inside of.
SM Just to clarify, this is from when to when?
LMFrom age six to fifteen maybe. I had to stop, not because I lost interest, but because of social circumstances. Performing that way was considered antisocial.
SMBecause of men?
LMBoys would come over to see my older sisters, and I would be out front playing vaquera; it was considered shameful. (laughter)
SMCritics are always talking about the message or theme. Right before the title of this film, there’s the parable of the fish condemned to swim upriver. I thought it was very bold to drop this right at the beginning, then put the viewer through the endurance test of Zama’s frustration and mediocrity.
LMI’m glad you mention this, and I really like that it’s mentioned at the beginning of the novel as well. It all takes place underwater, and Zama is resisting the flow. And for the end of the film, that image of him lost in the water was very important. He finally lets go a little bit. Identity is a process of fixing prerogatives for yourself, but existence is more like floating in a river. All of those challenges we put in the way of the flow become traps. For example, the only tree that survives a hurricane is the palm because it moves with the world. It’s not rigid. Identity runs contrary to this, demanding stability. The perception of time unavoidably generates a timeline. That timeline actually goes against our own bodies; it’s not an organic idea. All these formal decisions show Zama, from the beginning, resisting the river. Di Benedetto actually had this in mind for the novel. For some people, it’s a castration, but for me it was nothing like that. It has to do with identity.
SMSo there’s freedom for Zama, somehow?
LMI feel at the end, yes. He is asked if he wants to live, and I feel he will go on with his life in that muddy territory. Did you feel otherwise?
SMThe thought crossed my mind. But he’s motionless, the frame is still, while the lilies in the water are moving. It’s a relief in a way, but this is the joke, the crisis. And the novel is supposed to be funny, right?
LMFor me, it is, but humor is very difficult. It seems, when a person is reading or looking at something, they need to themselves relax and let go, to take down their defenses. It’s not comedy as it is usually known; it’s the humor of the absurd, of the contrary.
SMI felt the same watching Zama as when I saw The Holy Girl over ten years ago. Your movies find a new language for interior crises, the moments between drama that typically—how do I put this—screenwriting orthodoxy would discourage in a script.
LMBut it’s very much a part of the ontology of cinema. What criteria do we have to judge which are the more dramatic moments in a period of time? Even that evaluation is filled with preconceptions. I’ll give you a very small example: let’s say the script reads, character drinks water. Which is more important? The act of pouring the water, holding the cup, drinking from it, or swallowing? How do we judge any of those as more important than the other?
Now, let’s project that idea onto a more complex situation. You read somebody’s biography, and it says,”between the ages of six and fifteen, she played vaquera.” Which actions or sounds can then give meaning to these words? What are the relevant points I can use to organize my timeline? That decomposition of time is how one does analysis. In order to stay away from my own culture and education, I invented my own sense of time. It could be false in reality, but it works for me. This timeline is very visual, usually with the future in the front and past in the back. The face will be the present. In order to try to get out of this scheme, I try thinking of something that arises from sound, which can pass in all different ways. We move away from linearity and into a volume. This is actually a more relatable physical experience. To wish for something you don’t have, or for something to happen in the future, or to have a thought about the past, are actually volumes or measures in time. It shouldn’t be seen like a chronology from past to future along a series of consequences. All tenses are possible at once. It’s a more organic experience and, with that format in mind, you can visually organize it. If we have all of the seconds of the past, present, and future coexisting in one, it’s very arbitrary to choose one thing to make evident. But these are just tricks to help me think; they’re not necessarily good or bad.
SMIn the scene concerning the magistrate’s letter, Zama is crestfallen, then the sound drops out and suddenly there’s a llama enveloping the space behind him. It’s not a point in a plot chronology, but rather a psychological break. And yet one of my colleagues, a very sharp critic, somehow barely remembered that llama. This seems a very accurate model for how memory works—he clocked the scene by the audio, a kind of downward scale on the soundtrack.
LMYes, to give an impression of descending, of falling forever.
Special thanks to interpreter Natalia Robinson.
Zama opens theatrically in New York on April 13, 2018, following a retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from April 10-12, and a special screening of La Ciénaga at the IFC Center on April 12.
Steve Macfarlane is a writer, curator and filmmaker from Seattle, Washington. His writing has appeared in Cinema Scope, The White Review, Filmmaker Magazine and The Brooklyn Rail, among others.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee