Venice + Toronto 2017: Lucrecia Martel’s Zama

“Lucrecia Martel is the elusive poet of Latin-American cinema, missing believed lost, the Mary Celeste in human form,” begins the Guardian’s Xan Brooks. “She made La Cienaga and The Holy Girl; split the Cannes audience in two with her brilliant, maddening The Headless Woman. And then, all at once, Martel seemed to vanish. . . . Now Martel is back, after a nine-year absence, with the astonishing Zama, adapted from a novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, about an 18th-century Spanish colony perched on the Asuncion coast. Her film is haunted, haunting and admittedly prone to the occasional longueur insofar as it runs to its own peculiar rhythm; maybe even its own primal logic. It arrives in Venice as if blown in from another world.”

A “Spanish crown officer’s exasperated wait for a royal transfer from his lowly South American posting spirals out into a full-blown tropical malady,” writes Variety’s Guy Lodge. “Perplexing and intoxicating in equal measure, Zama is undeniably challenging in its adherence to a mannered, densely narrated literary source: As storytelling, it makes Martel’s last feature, the brilliantly opaque The Headless Woman, look like Agatha Christie. But it honors Di Benedetto’s work by strictly cinematic means, and to formally mesmerizing effect: The frustrating nine-year wait for new material from Martel has done nothing to blunt her exquisite, inventive command of sound and image, nor her knack for subtly violent exposure of social and racial prejudice on the upper rungs of the class ladder.”

“Unlike ostensibly similar slow-cinema films, such as Jauja by her countryman Lisandro Alonso, Martel’s leisurely pacing does not connote a paucity of action or intrigue,” writes Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “If anything, Zama’s sluggish rhythms belie a surfeit of incident: Every scene is steamy with background activity, the air thick with hidden motivations and unspoken crosscurrents. It is heady and tactile, with Tabu DP Rui Poças creating exquisitely precise frames, and sound designer Guido Berenblum then coloring in a whole universe of chirruping crickets and stagnant waters outside them. Every close up is a portrait and every wide a tableau: at one point Zama is taken to task by a sour-tempered superior and we can actually hear the old man blink.”

“Few films have done more to unite the international film community than Zama,” suggests Ben Croll at IndieWire. “The nominally Argentinian film is a joint venture between nine other countries as well, and the end credits name figures as diverse as Danny Glover, Pedro Almodóvar, and Gael Garcia Bernal among the many other who jumped on to help this project through a troubled, many year production. Finally complete, Lucrecia Martel’s film promises to be significantly more divisive.”

“During all the years that I have been working on this film and other useless things, I did not feel a rupture,” Martel tells Nicolas Rapold in the New York Times, where he notes that, “Yes, there was a science-fiction production that failed to launch after more than a year and a half of work; a shoot on Zama lasting over two months; a protracted edit on the film, her longest ever; and somewhere in there, she got sick, bad enough to take a break. But Zama has arrived.”

Two years ago, Diego Lerer visited the set for Sight & Sound. There, she told him, “I have 1,000 things to say against the idea of making a novel into a film. But I found a really genuine motive, based on my own experiences and emotions, which made me feel that it was really worth it. Zama is a novel about a very different Latin America to the present one, and it transmits a fascination for something that doesn’t exist any more, for a continent that is no longer that way: undefined, diffuse, of immense expanse.”

“Things that just occur to you aren’t ideas,” says Martel in a conversation with Manuel Kalmanovitz that ran in Terremoto in February. “I’ve read thousands of screenplay pages that are lousy with things that have occurred to people —but don’t have a single idea. . . . You’ve got to be really patient, avoid the vanity of being productive.”

Updates: “Where Zama belatedly comes alive is in its gripping final twenty minutes or so,” finds David Rooney in the Hollywood Reporter. “The title character’s desperation prompts him to lead a dangerous mission to hunt the notorious, possibly mythical bandit Vicuna Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele) in the last-ditch hope that his capture might be Zama’s ticket out of there. The shifting wilderness landscape, dense vegetation, encounters with a hostile tribe daubed in red body paint and the bitterly ironic discovery of Zama’s target generate a Heart of Darkness-type hallucinatory fascination that’s almost like an entirely different movie.”

“As nearly two hours pass and the dogged Diego de Zama realises his goal may never come to pass, Martel’s visual thread also frays,” writes Screen’s Fionnuala Halligan. “Often the audience can’t see the person who is speaking; frequently the dialogue isn’t translated; some footage is speeded-up, other interludes pass slowly. Characters change without explanation. Ambient sound shrieks. It’s confusing and heavy and bears down hard until a third-act swerve throws in colors and movement and spins the viewer out of the theater in wonder. It won’t be forgotten.”

Update, 9/2: “There are times when the movie, with its recurrences and recycling of actors and floating visual motifs feels like The Saragossa Manuscript had the actual premise of its nesting-storylines device never been explicitly revealed,” writes Glenn Kenny in a dispatch from Venice to “That’s not quite it, but it’s as close as I’m going to get after one viewing at the end of the day. A couple of my critical companions have actually seen it three times here in the past three days, and I can’t say I blame them.”

Update, 9/3: At the Film Stage, Zhuo-Ning Su finds that “Martel builds an altogether cryptic, feverish atmosphere without ever engaging the audience and the disconnect is truly frustrating. . . . You might stumble upon brilliant insights amidst the confusion. The big picture, however, proves elusive.”

Update, 9/6: Martel “meticulously straddles the arbitrary divide between narrative and avant-garde storytelling,” writes Blake Williams for Cinema Scope, and, “like fellow fest-circuit superstar Lisandro Alonso, [she] heightens sensory reception and bodily awareness by foregrounding the absence of conventional cinematic stimuli. For both filmmakers (especially Alonso), temporal indeterminacy and perceptual lethargy are part of the game, and Martel’s playful muddling of time and sense is all the more radical, destabilizing, and affecting because her movies initially seem to be appropriating understood narrative templates and genre standards that we associate with more popular or classical modes of filmmaking—movies that we go into believing that we already know them. But as we invariably come to find in Martel, this sense of grounding is only the point from which she will lead us into the unknown.”

Updates, 9/10: “As the credits faded, David [Bordwell] asked, ‘Have we just seen a masterpiece?’” writes Kristin Thompson. “Neither of us doubted that we had . . . During the press conference, the cinematographer Rui Poças and Martel said that they sought a visual way to convey a sense of Zama’s agonizing wait, a way to give ‘the sensation of time that has stopped,’ as Martel put it. They deliberately avoided some of the conventions of historical films. One of these was to eliminate fires and candles. Martel added, ‘In order to be able to think, you must be deprived of things.’ This rule was strictly obeyed.”

“In The Headless Woman, her 2008 puzzler about a woman who may or may not have run over a child with her car, Martel gave us a dark comedy of bourgeois indictment, evoking the woman’s concussed, amnesiac state without assuaging, let alone absolving, her guilt,” writes Justin Chang in the Los Angeles Times. “Emerging nearly ten years later and set more than two centuries earlier, Zama nonetheless suggests a curious extension of that film’s waking nightmare, in which the scars of oppression are no less evident. Watch how carefully Martel etches the brutal reality of slavery in her images, the way she uses crowded frames and half-naked bodies to suggest humanity matter-of-factly choking the life out of its own. Even before the movie erupts in a fatal, inevitable crescendo of violence, you can feel dread emanating from every pore.”

“If arguably easier to ingest than some of Martel’s past offerings, Zama is no less stylized, as we experience alongside the protagonist, the deadly, leeching act of waiting,” writes Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema. “However, Martel’s film is filled with episodic bits of distraction, many which drives this quickly darkening scenario into the land of the ludicrous and Kafkaesque. Martel conveys a world of stagnating humans against a backdrop of lush, overpowering landscape. Wigs are flopped on with unceremonious zeal, and DP Pocas Rui (The Ornithologist;Tabu) once again proves a master at capturing colonizing humans as they mar their pristine landscapes.”

Update, 9/11: “If there is any single word of advice I can give to Zama’s first-time viewer, it is simply to attend as closely to the film’s soundtrack as she or he does to the film’s visual track,” writes Michael J. Anderson.

Updates, 9/15:Zama “evinces a mood which, though akin to the strangeness present in the hotel of The Holy Girl (2004), is also strongly reminiscent of the feeling of disjuncture produced by Werner Herzog for The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser,” writes Sight & Sound editor Nick James. “The film is a rich work of visual tapestry, of 18th century Latin American colonial life as self-mythologizing fable, a haunting work that gets into your bones.”

“Why shouldn’t a film about thwarted goals possess the phantom impression of its own setbacks and delays?” asks A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Zama, despite its setting, isn’t such a radical departure for Martel; it preserves her talent for tracking an individual through chaotic social spheres (see also: the overcrowded hotel backdrop of her The Holy Girl), as well as the perplexing way that she seems to deemphasize the significance of key moments, so that scenes that advance the (loose, shaggy) plot carry no more weight than ones that exist simply to observe the environment. That’s perfect for a state of stasis: Since nothing Zama does seems to get him any closer to the transfer he so dearly desires, it’s appropriate that every scene would unfold with the same glancing ambivalence.”

“Beautiful, hypnotic, mysterious and elliptical, Zama is a story about a man at odds with a world that he struggles to dominate, which becomes a lacerating, often surprisingly comic evisceration of colonialism and patriarchy,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times.

“After a certain point, Martel moves from deconstructing imperialism to the explorer narrative itself, as Zama finally gives up on sitting on his ass and sets out into the wilderness in hopes of catching an outlaw who may just be a myth,” writes Dan Schindel for Vague Visages. “Here the movie acquires an intimidating beauty, with these small men contrasted against the vivid green severity of the Paraguayan chaco. And strayed from the security of their outposts, it quickly swallows them up. They were never anything, the pretensions of superiority the film already squashed proven definitively empty.”

At, Vikram Murthi suggests that Zama is “a helluva thing to look at and listen to if you give up the idea of understanding every single moment.”

Update, 9/16: “If [Paul Schrader’s] First Reformed is an ashen Whistler, here is a Carlos Morel canvas whose hues often seem like the woozy spots imagined during a fever,” writes Fernando F. Croce in the Notebook. “What a fiend Martel is with her camera! . . . [S]he stresses the primary of the visual via a procession of astoundingly intricate and eccentric compositions. . . . As in Martel’s previous films, there’s the contradictory feeling of the senses being stimulated within an atmosphere of drowsiness.”

Update, 9/18: “I wanted to create this idea of slowing down time,” Martel tells Darren Hughes and Daniel Kasman in the Notebook. “So it was a choice for rhythm, and with that sound we got to that change of rhythm. From the very beginning, since the first cut, the duration of the film was always the same: two hours. So what was the most challenging to adjust, to really get right, that I took twenty weeks to do, was getting the rhythm I was looking for.”

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