In the run-up to the release of Zama on Friday, the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York is presenting a retrospective of work by Lucrecia Martel. Starting tonight and on through Friday, Martel will be there to either introduce the screenings or to take part in Q&As. Then on Saturday and Sunday, the FSLC will present free screenings of Light Years, Manuel Abramovich’s documentary on the making of Zama.
While she’s in the city, Martel will be spending Thursday evening at the IFC Center, taking part in a Q&A following a screening of a new 4K restoration of her feature debut, La Ciénaga (2001) before introducing Zama. And then she’s off and running:
- To Chicago to take part in discussions of Zama on Sunday and Monday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, which is also presenting Lucrecia Martel’s Salta Trilogy from April 20 through May 1
- To Columbus to introduce Zama on April 18 at the Wexner Center for the Arts, whose Martel retrospective runs from April 17 through 21
- To Los Angeles, where UCLA has invited her to talk about Zama on April 20 and The Holy Girl (2004) on April 21
- To Berkeley, where B. Ruby Rich will talk with her about Zama on April 22; the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive series The Anxiety of Identity: The Films of Lucrecia Martel runs from April 20 through May 10
- To San Francisco to discuss Zama at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts on April 23
- Even as Zama carries on rolling out across North America well into the summer, Martel will be in London in May for retrospectives at the ICA and the BFI
“She is nothing less than one of contemporary cinema’s true visionaries,” writes FSLC programmer Dennis Lim. “Almost every shot in her work shows you something in a way you’ve never seen it before. Simply put, her films look, sound, and move like no one else’s.” In October, Lim took part in a conversation with Esther Allen, who’s translated Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel, Zama, and Violet Lucca for an episode of the Film Comment Podcast (45’17”). And José Teodoro interviewed Martel for Film Comment last September when she was in Toronto; Zama premiered in Venice, which is when in where E. Nina Rothe spoke with her.
John Powers for Vogue: “Although Martel has made only four features, each is extraordinary in its cinematic mastery—she’s one of the greatest directors in the world right now—and in the piercing keenness of its social vision. Without ever hammering you on the head (indeed, her work requires that you pay close attention), she explores the everyday workings of forces that feel more relevant than ever in our current political situation: patriarchy, colonialism, racism, and the sense of godlike superiority conferred by money.”
“Named after the northwestern province of Argentina where [the first] three films are set (and where the director herself grew up), Martel’s Salta Trilogy counts as one of the signal cinematic achievements of the millennium,” wrote James Quandt when the TIFF Cinematheque presented its retrospective in February. Zama “offers further proof that the Argentine auteur is indeed some kind of genius.” And further in:
Like Terrence Malick and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Martel somehow manages to inhabit both ends of the continuum that extends between cinema’s Controllers and its Intuitionists: i.e., those who lock every line, image, and role into a system of predetermined meaning (Haneke, Egoyan, Reygadas et al), and those who profit from chance and indeterminacy (Jarmusch, Varda, Godard, etc.). Martel’s precise compositions and exacting tone play off the disarray of her domestic scenes, the encroachment of the jungle in La Ciénaga, the whiff of decline in the hotel halls of The Holy Girl, and The Headless Woman’s mesmeric drift through a once-familiar world now unfixed in its features.
Some of the retrospectives mentioned above include programs of Martel’s short films, but here, we’ll be concentrating on the features.
La Ciénaga (2001)
“Notwithstanding the sweltering Argentinean heat and a herd of noisy children, teenagers, and half-wild dogs, Lucrecia Martel’s La Ciénaga is a veritable Chekhov tragicomedy of provincial life,” wrote Amy Taubin in the Village Voice in 2001. “Making a brilliant debut, Martel constructs her narrative from quotidian incidents, myriad comings and goings, and a cacophony of voices competing for attention.”
“The film takes place on the country estate of a bourgeois Argentinian family who retreat to their villa to escape the city heat, a move whose futility can be traced in the beads of sweat on every character’s face,” wrote Jake Cole for Slant in 2015. “Within seconds, Martel captures a sense of faded aristocracy, of a loss of status that certain families suffered generations ago that nonetheless weighs heavily on family members long removed from their noble past. . . . Like Bresson and Kiarostami, she employs ambient noise to triangulate off-screen space, but she also heightens rainforest sounds and dripping water to the point that it becomes a kind of torture, communicating dread more than simple place.”
David Oubiña in an essay that accompanies the 2015 release on DVD and Blu-ray: “Reacting against earlier Argentine cinema (solemn, conventional, conformist), filmmakers like Martel, Martín Rejtman, Pablo Trapero, Adrián Caetano, and Lisandro Alonso, each in their own way, recorded with rigor, delicacy, and imagination the way the plates of their society resettled after each new tremor. Politics may not be explicitly at the forefront of their films, but it is omnipresent in them, informing their characters’ relationships and behavior. In La Ciénaga, one of the highest achievements of the movement, it is manifest in the despairing, sinking world the characters inhabit: the run-down house, the lassitude of the adults, the scars of the children, the class prejudice, the silent oppression of women. The old traditions are worn out, but the future appears to be an endless plateau of cynicism and stagnation.”
The Holy Girl (2004)
“The easiest way to start thinking about The Holy Girl,” wrote Nathan Lee for the New York Sun in 2005, “is to classify its genre: the coming-of-age film. Once you’ve done that, you can marvel at the boldness with which Ms. Martel has reinvented the form from the bottom up.”
“Though introduced as a standard Lolita type, with her Catholic-schoolgirl clothes and eyes that naturally droop into a sultry gaze, María Alché is just emerging from pre-sexual innocence, and her new awareness frightens her as much as it makes her curious,” wrote Scott Tobias for the A.V. Club in 2005. “Though her more developed best friend (Julieta Zylberberg) whispers poisonous gossip about their pious teacher and an older man, Alché is really set off by an incident in which married doctor Carlos Belloso presses himself against her on a crowded street. Unsure how to respond, Alché follows Belloso around the hotel where she and her mother (Mercedes Morán) reside, and where Belloso is staying for a medical conference. Things grow more tangled when Morán, a still-beautiful woman whose loneliness betrays a hint of desperation, takes a romantic interest in Belloso, who reacts to the whole situation with intense discomfort.”
A. O. Scott in the New York Times on “Martel's elusive, feverish and altogether amazing second feature” in 2004: “The intense, unexpressed emotions that percolate through Ms. Martel's story of innocence and desire are conveyed, more than in most films, through sounds—whispered and half-overhead conversations, the murmurings of water in old pipes, the strange auditory signals that float in from the edges of perception. Her visual style is similarly oblique, as she frames her characters through half-opened doors, at odd angles and in asymmetrical close-ups. To a degree that is sometimes disorienting, Ms. Martel explores the mysteries of the senses. They are our instruments for knowing ourselves, each other and the world, but they also mislead us, bringing pain, pleasure and confusion in equal measure.”
The Headless Woman (2008)
“About five minutes into Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman, bourgeois and bottle-blond Vero (María Onetto), clad in bloodred, cruises a dirt road until she hits something out of frame,” writes Courtney Duckworth for Screen Slate. “We know this, in part, because Martel gathers unsettling sounds: a cell phone’s ring, for which Vero glances away, first innocuous and then, after the accident, nerve-fraying; the gratingly gleeful pop of ‘Soleil, Soleil’; a telltale thump and the susurrus of lifted gravel. Vero reacts, mildly, for one minute; she even poises her curved hand on the car’s leather interior, as if intending to open the door. But she drives on, and this choice suffuses and haunts the film.”
“Much commentary on Martel’s work emphasizes her indirect engagement with Argentina’s history,” writes Adam Ochonicky in the new issue of Screening the Past:
For instance, Deborah Martin qualifies that, although The Headless Woman “appears to allude to the Argentine dictatorship of 1976-82 and to those ‘disappeared’ by that regime,” interpretations that “reduce the film to any one political or historical reading would . . . deny the film’s allusive and multiplicitous nature, its polysemic inferences and metaphors.” By contrast, Patricia White stresses that Martel’s examination of “the ethical failure to acknowledge culpability” intertwines commentary on “political amnesia and complicity regarding the years of dictatorship . . . with racialized and place-based class and gender hierarchies.” Of her own work, Martel specifies: “My films are political in this sense: to make a film is to share the doubt about our reality.” Martel’s provocative notion of the political is exceptionally relevant for considering the importance of absence in her cinema. To cast doubt on the stability of the visible is, for Martel, to imagine alternate political formations and to cultivate a willingness to recognize what is missing or obscured within the frame. By forcing audiences to scan the cinematic image for traces of that which remains out of sight and just off-screen, Martel’s cinema—especially The Headless Woman—trades in precisely this type of aesthetic. In other words, Martel demands that her viewers confront absence.
Chris Wisniewski for Reverse Shot in 2013: “The Headless Woman may not make complete sense when seen as an exemplar of contemporary Latin American, feminist, or queer film; as a major work by a film artist at the height of her powers, though, it may be indispensable.”
I gathered a first round of reviews last fall when Zama premiered in Venice and screened in Toronto. A second round followed during the New York Film Festival, and that entry collected articles, interviews, and so on for about two months. As more writing on Zama appears in the coming weeks, I’ll make note of it here.
Updates, 4/12: “Zama is, alongside everything else that can be said about it, an extraordinary work of adaptation,” writes Adrian Martin in the Notebook. “Martel speaks of having entered not only the world of Antonio Di Benedetto’s remarkable 1956 novel of the same name, but also the inner processes of the Argentine author’s creative imagination. While following the basic outline of the book, she takes the usual liberties involved in page-to-screen adaptation: characters are subtracted, events are condensed, interior monologues are transposed into exterior dialogues. But Martel has allowed herself a far greater margin of freedom in this genuine ‘re-imagining’ of the novel. . . . Like Raúl Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999), it is at once a commentary upon, and a dream of, its rich source of inspiration.”
For Slant, Peter Goldberg talks with Martel about Zama, “her anti-mythological inquiry into Argentina's dark colonial past, her shift to shooting on digital, the particulars of the film's sound design, and ceding power to her actors.”
Updates, 4/14: “If the novel’s vision of a man stuck in time, place, and status seemed to anticipate its own obscurity (it took ages for it be recognized as a major work), the movie reflects Martel’s arduous process of adapting it,” writes A. A. Dowd at the A.V. Club. “Nearly a decade has elapsed since the Argentine writer-director made a film—the bewildering thriller-cum-character-study The Headless Woman—and she spent much of the interim just trying to get this offbeat period piece off the ground; sixteen production companies from all over the world ended up chipping in, resulting in a roll call of producers that includes Pedro Almodóvar, Danny Glover, and Gael García Bernal. The effort shows, in the right way: Why shouldn’t a film about thwarted goals possess the phantom impression of its own setbacks and delays?”
Daniel Giménez Cacho, “who appears in nearly every scene, anchors Zama beautifully in an expressive yet reserved performance that pulls you in intellectually rather than emotionally,” writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. “This is crucial to how the movie works, particularly because it is told from the point of view of the colonizer, not the colonized. Ms. Martel is exploring the past, how we got here and why, but she is more interested in relations of power than in individual psychological portraits. The monstrous must be humanized to be understood, which doesn’t mean it deserves our tears.”
Zama’s “personality is the antithesis of the proto-fascist blond madmen played by Klaus Kinski,” notes Steve Erickson at Gay City News. “Zama was born in South America but works for the Spanish Crown. He feels bored in the town where he lives and waits for a letter from the Spanish king allowing him permission to transfer. Until then, he tries to avoid doing anything to anger those in power. He takes every job the region’s governors offer him. While they have the ability to leave, he is stuck behind. Somehow, the king never gets around to replying to him. Giving up hope, he decides to join a group of soldiers heading after the bandit Vicuña Porto.”
“Here the movie shifts into a genuinely surreal direction, as Zama descends from a purgatory of Beckett/Kafka dimensions into an inferno of humiliation and disfigurement that ultimately reveals itself amidst mirror images and reversed identities,” writes Glenn Kenny at RogerEbert.com. “It’s here that Ms. Martel’s precise but still magical cinematic style makes itself most profoundly felt. Zama is a mordantly funny and relentlessly modernist critique of colonialism that makes no conclusions, ultimately resting on a scene of verdant nature not entirely stained by humanity.”
“A cockeyed fable on her country’s history and a sideswipe at an empire crumbling under the weight of hubris and madness, Zama is more than a portrait of the loneliness of the long-distance foreigner,” writes Rolling Stone’s David Fear. “It’s the sort of immersive cultural transmission that reminds you just how powerful and transportive this medium can be—one of those rarities that can momentarily jolt you out of your ways of seeing things. Poetic is a word that gets thrown around willy-nilly, but it fits perfectly here. So does woozy. It feels less like a film than a high fever, burning slow but hot in order to incinerate a virus.”
“Even as Martel steeps the film deep within Zama’s perspective, she observes his tortuous male pathos with the critical distance of a female gaze,” writes Devika Girish in the Village Voice. “He does cut a pitiful figure . . . but he remains satiric, a parody of masculine and colonial self-importance.”
Update, 4/15: “In the history of film adaptation, Zama is an exceptional case,” writes Esther Allen, who translated the novel, for the New York Review of Books. “Both Di Benedetto and Martel are portraitists of the provincial, the marginal, whose stories uncannily tell us more about what’s left unsaid or unseen than about what’s written on the page or shown on the screen. In Di Benedetto’s fictions and Martel’s films, the fate of the defenseless—the young, the mute, the disabled, animals—doesn’t often appear to be the subject but always is. . . . Martel’s Zama offers a passionately informed and intuitive reading that is at once a reply and a carrying forward, a fusion that brings Di Benedetto’s novel into entirely new territory. Taken together, book and film bring new understanding to one another, and come to form a single work of art.”
Update, 4/16: “Martel reportedly avoided the use of candles and torches to light the atmosphere, bucking the tradition of lighting schemes intended to induce one into a seventeenth century world (a la Barry Lyndon, with which Zama shares a kindred spirit),” writes John Dickson for the Cine-List. “The result is one of unnerving possession and complete immersion into a nightmare brought on by Zama himself, who resists any attempt to go with the flow of his circumstances, thrashing against the powers of red-tape, lust, and sunstroke in his attempts to arrive at a sense of complacency with his current state of affairs. It’s impossible to avoid succumbing to the film’s atmosphere and somnambulistic gaze, especially when you realize suddenly you are in the presence of one of the absolute masterworks of the last ten years.”
Update, 4/19: Zama’s “glorious quest doesn’t go as he might hope,” writes the Atlantic’s David Sims, “but the ensuing violence and chaos is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God—bizarre, undeniably graphic, and yet oddly hilarious in its utter pointlessness. Zama isn’t quite the mad conquistador of Herzog’s movie (he’s far too jaded and subtle for that), though the ephemerality of what he’s seeking feels the same.”
Updates, 4/11: “What is history if not one big invention?” asks Martel in her conversation with Steve Macfarlane at BOMB. “As much as we try to study the past in archeological ways, we really have no other option than to author it.”
And here’s another event. On May 10 in Buffalo, as part of the series Women Direct: First Films by Modern Visionary Filmmakers, Cultivate Cinema Circle and Hallwalls Contemporary Art Center will present La Ciénaga.
Updates, 4/14: “From scene to scene, Martel’s films can seem disjointed, yet there is always the palpable, inexorable feeling of malaise, of psychic and moral rot under exacting investigation,” writes Melissa Anderson at 4Columns. “With their trance-like sound designs and striking visual compositions, the movies enthrall as much as they bewilder.”
“Probably what attracts me most about cinema is the possibility of reflecting reality in an altered way,” Martel tells Michael Smith in Time Out. “I think this is the most interesting mission of making films. Reflect reality with certain distortions that allow us to understand the subjective, arbitrary, and the constructed, in the reality that surrounds us, and we’re naturalized as if things couldn’t have been otherwise. Perverting perception is a fundamental step for those who have an interest in the political possibilities of cinema.”
“Ms. Martel hopes to return to Salta, where she has been working on a documentary about Javier Chocobar, an indigenous activist who was killed in a land dispute in 2008,” notes J. Hoberman in the New York Times. “‘The history of our country is broken,’ she said, referring to Argentine identification with Europe. ‘It’s a conflict for every white man’—and crucial to an understanding of the existential antihero Zama.”
Meantime, the Centre for Film and Screen at the University of Cambridge will be hosting Lucrecia Martel as Filmmaker in Residence from May 5 through 20.
Update, 4/15: “As a genre, allegories of the senses were often intended to comment on life’s transience,” writes James Quandt for Artforum, “and Martel’s cinema accumulates a drastic catalogue of memento mori. Everywhere are death, injury, mutilation, accidents, contagion, and disease (from fever to hepatitis, cholera to the plague), and, in her latest film, Zama (2017), two double dismemberments. . . . Martel frames La Ciénaga symmetrically with two falls, the first injurious, the second fatal, so when a naked man crashes onto a terrace from the apartment above in The Holy Girl, his survival is hailed as a miracle.”
Update, 4/18: Ben Sachs has interviewed Martel for the Chicago Reader and found that “like her films, her responses to my questions were entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking.”
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