• [The Daily] NYFF 2017: Lucrecia Martel’s Zama

    By David Hudson


    “I have seen Zama, and it does indeed have a llama,” announces Cinema Scope editor Mark Peranson in the new issue. “The mysterious circumstances of the film’s long-overdue birth into this world continue with an out-of-competition slot in Venice, an odd happenstance which you can interpret as you wish. I’m not a big fan of second-guessing, but I have my own hypotheses,” the first of which has to do with the fall festivals jostling their schedules to make room for “Oscar bait.” At the same time, “it could very well be that the programmers in Venice just didn’t like Zama that much.” Whatever the case, Toronto honored Lucrecia Martel with a slot in the Masters program, and I carried on updating the “Venice + Toronto” entry with clips, links to reviews and interviews and so on through September 18. Martel will be on hand for Q&As this evening and again on Monday as the New York Film Festival presents Zama as part of its Main Slate.

    José Teodoro has an outstanding piece on Zama in the current issue of Film Comment; it’s not online, but he snips a bit of it himself for the introduction to his interview with Martel, which is online: “There are many ways in which Zama, Martel’s first feature in nine years, represents a departure for the Argentine writer-director. It is her first literary adaptation [of Antonio Di Benedetto’s eponymous 1957 novel], her first period film, her first film with a male protagonist, her first film in which widescreen compositions largely emphasize verticality instead of horizontality, and her first feature to be set outside of her native province of Salta. Yet, while Zama represents a new frontier for Martel, it also continues and even deepens her singular, allusive approach to class, gender, race, and place, as well as still more cryptic notions of destiny and vocation.”

    “If one of the principal powers and pleasures of cinema is its ability to momentarily suspend thoughts or cares about what lies outside the frame—and to trap us in rapt, passive contemplation of everything within it—then Zama can be taken an object lesson in manipulation,” suggests Adam Nayman, writing for Reverse Shot. “Every strenuously controlled moment and movement constitutes an irresistible entreaty to simply go blank and watch.” Zama “reflects the same furtive, obsessive visual focus as its predecessors,” starting with La Ciénaga (2001), “a film whose thick, simmering atmosphere of dog-day-afternoon torpor is uncannily affecting. . . . The heroine of The Holy Girl (2004) stumbles around in somnambulistic thrall to desires she feels yet cannot fully apprehend (no wonder the soundtrack is dominated by the theremin). The title character in The Headless Woman (2008) is dazedly puppeteered by her friends and family to forget her own culpability in a terrible crime, post-concussion syndrome as an amnesiac state of grace.”

    Zama places the existential ennui of Beckett and the administrative hopelessness of Kafka within a 17th century context,” writes Michael Sicinski. “In so doing, Benedetto, and by extension Martel, are identifying a sense of dislocation and madness at the very heart of Spain's colonial project and the civilization of South America. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a functionary of rank, a man who has spent years wasting away in Paraguay and wants to be reassigned to Argentina, where his wife has been waiting for him. . . . Everything goes wrong. . . . The plot, such as it is, is episodic and bitterly comedic, Martel taking a sly, savage delight in fleshing out this fussy would-be aristocrat and bringing him low.”

    “Fearing marauders and seeking to subjugate the indigenous population while making use of their labor, Zama finds his loyalties divided and his desires manipulated in a series of intensely condensed dramatic tableaux, which Martel ingeniously renders simultaneously stark and teeming,” writes the New Yorker’s Richard Brody. “She develops a cinematic style, marked by tense closeups, asymmetrical framings, offscreen voices, and sharp contrasts in focus, that fits the subject with a singular precision. The relentless plotting of potentates and labors of servants and slaves fill the onscreen space with a seemingly combustible tension—and then long-stifled violence surges to the fore. Few films convey such amplitude so sparely; it’s a two-hour film that feels like it’s twice that length, not in sitting-time but in narrative scope and dramatic detail.”

    Keith Uhlich puts in a word for “the gorgeously askew photography by Rui Poças, regular collaborator of Miguel Gomes and João Pedro Rodrigues. This is a somnolent symphony of disappointment and delay. . . . There's a sense that even the movie itself, which emerged after a reportedly tumultuous production period, is perched on some divide between actuality and non-being. That's a tricky line—one that Martel walks, in spite of any extra-textual obstacles, with supreme confidence throughout.”

    Variety’s Esla Keslassy reports that Strand Releasing has picked up North American rights with an eye to release Zama in theaters early next year.

    Updates, 10/2: For those who read Spanish, Haciendo Cine has posted an interview with Martel conducted by Kleber Mendonça Filho (Neighboring Sounds, Aquarius).

    Zama, the video game.

    Updates, 10/3: “How strange and apt that the year's most sensorially and ideologically dense film is also a comedy of microaggressions, built on the minor workplace humiliations of a pencil-pusher in the 1790s,” writes Christopher Gray at Slant. “Zama, a company man somewhat oblivious to the internecine maneuvering in his midst, never figures out how to behave. If he learns anything over the course of this extraordinary film, it's that concepts as foundational as identity and possession can be illusory: Zama's furniture belongs to the Spanish crown, and his ostensible subjects reject or ignore his every entreaty. Martel at least seems to offer him some release through this revelation. Her compositions gradually broaden in scope, encompassing more and more unfettered land, while local warriors painted in red move through the frame in packs that expand by the shot. In its gruesome but strangely tranquil final scenes, both Zama and the film seem to succumb to a quiet sort of fever, drifting away from history and into a land without borders.”

    “Kathryn Bigelow is an excellent example of a woman seeing things like a man,” Martel tells E. Nina Rothe at the Huffington Post. “She’s a super talented woman and director but she has such a white, male, American vision of things. I’m not saying that all female moviemakers are better than men but I think that if you are born on the margins, on the frontier of power you have a chance of seeing things better rather than if you are inside the mainstream, in power. But only if you are self aware of what is going on and if you know how to use it.”

    Martel will be at the Pratt Film/Video Department in Brooklyn this evening to take part in a discussion of her work with professors Jim Finn and Matías Piñeiro.

    Update, 10/7: “Martel, an unexpected and perfect match for the material, renders the novel into beguiling chops and chunks,” writes John Magary for Screen Slate. “Through her thrillingly democratic eye, the officials and their servants—and the servants’ servants, and the children of the servants, and the animals attending to the children—roam through backgrounds and foregrounds, attending to some unexplained duty. The ‘subjects’ of the frame—often Zama himself, eyes darting to the next ‘horizon’ in a head-crowding close-up—appear at once bound and unbound.”

    Update, 10/11: Writing for In Review Online, Zach Lewis finds that “where, at every point, di Benedetto skirts realism with blunt mystical phenomena, Martel builds surreality out of unexplained shifts in tone and uncomfortable pacing. In other senses, Zama, the film, isn’t necessarily a departure from its source material: Martel’s episodic narrative grasps di Benedetto’s Paraguay/Chile, but transforms it into a more sedate dreamscape.”

    Update, 10/14:Zama is part of a recent trend of slow, hallucinogenic art house films that are set in the past,” writes Tanner Tafelski for Kinoscope. “Albert Serra’s Story of My Death (2013) and Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014) ignore generic conventions associated with the historical film, creating mesmeric works that intertwine the fantastic and the banal. Zama falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum between Story of My Death and Jauja. It doesn’t have an iota of the braggadocian filmmaking in the former or the plunge into the oneiric in the latter. Rather, Zama, like Martel’s prior works, has a tactility to it that’s accentuated by the clipped editing. And the dreamy, discombobulating elements come in flashes—the monotonous hum on the soundtrack, a glimpse of a child, a peripatetic llama.”

    Update, 10/22: For Sight & Sound, Erika Balsom reports on a conversation with Martel that took place during the London Film Festival: “Throughout the talk, Martel expressed her frustration with linear time, stating that it is something arbitrary that humans invented simply to make sense of existence. It enters the cinema in the form of strongly narrative films organized according to sturdy chains of cause and effect, films that annoy Martel for providing the viewer with all the tools they need to know what is going on from the very start. In contrast to this dominant paradigm, the director articulated her desire to ‘unlearn’ these logical orders and reject the typical conception of time as an arrow, with clearly delineated relationships between past, present and future.”

    Updates, 10/27: “I might call the film a delirium, but Martel is too precise for that, and too harshly satirical,” writes Stuart Klawans in the Nation. “You might rather think of this work as a landscape film, whose softly colored, picturesque surface is disturbed here and there by grubby fools.”

    For Variety, Anna Marie De La Fuente talks with Martel about adapting the novel, working with Pedro Almodóvar, the state of Argentine cinema, and: “I’ve just finished research on a documentary about an emblematic crime in modern Argentine history: the Javier Chocobar case, about an indigenous rural worker who was murdered in 2009, set against the backdrop of the land struggle in Argentina. In this case, video and photography intersect with indigenous land conflicts in a revealing way. It’s a documentary that needs to find a very particular narrative form; we’re working on that. And to edge even closer to failure—the source of all transformation and challenge—I am developing a very ambitious project, perhaps more so than Zama, a little more fantastic perhaps. We’ll see where it leads.”

    Film Comment Podcast host Violet Lucca discusses Zama with Esther Allen, “who produced the first English translation of Zama in 2016,” and Film Society of Lincoln Center director of programming Dennis Lim (45’17”).

    Update, 11/23: Writing for the Los Angeles Review of Books, Sam George Jackson suggest that “if Zama seems to reject our attention, it also rewards it. Martel’s film is a deeply experiential meditation on colonialism, lust, and the Latin American landscape, seen through the eyes of a paranoid egoist descending into madness.” And “in many ways it marks a major departure from the tones and themes of her earlier films. In other ways, though, it is a natural continuation of her preoccupation with the culture, the language, and the aesthetics of Argentina.”

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