I would rank Zama, an Argentine period drama playing this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, alongside Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle, Aleksei German’s Hard to Be a God, Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language, and Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice as one of the major cinematic events of the decade. The film marks the long-awaited return of writer-director Lucrecia Martel, who hadn’t released a film since The Headless Woman in 2008. Martel’s first three features (which the Film Center will revive later this month) comprise one of the most original bodies of work in 21st century cinema, employing a visual and sonic language all their own to advance an idiosyncratic view of modern life. Based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama stands proudly beside Martel’s other films and takes her core thematic concerns (sex, family, class, nature, inertia) into new territory. The film was worth the wait.
The title character is a Spanish magistrate in 18th century rural Argentina; he longs for a transfer so he can return to his wife and family, but a Kafkaesque bureaucracy prevents this from happening. Throughout the story, Zama gets humiliated again and again, but you may not realize the full extent of his downfall until you’ve seen the movie a few times—as always with Martel, the style is so immersive that you may find yourself taken with peripheral details and lose track of the storyline, which is oblique enough to begin with. I communicated with Martel via e-mail in advance of her appearance in Chicago (she’ll attend tonight’s screening of Zama and take part in a postshow discussion); like her films, her responses to my questions were entertaining, funny, and thought-provoking.
When did you decide you wanted to become a filmmaker?
Well, I still don’t admit this. I refuse to consider myself a filmmaker. I think it’s because I don’t know that much about cinema. And because I’m still looking for something to do. I feel a bit ashamed when I say this, because it sounds like a vain rebellion.
Each of your films has a distinct aesthetic sensibility while feeling like part of a continuous body of work. How do you determine how your films will look and feel? Do you consider this while writing the films, during shooting, or during the editing?
I think that throughout history, an error has been reaffirmed in relation to literature, cinema, and everything that emerges as a personal expression. And it was when we started talking about style as something independent in the process of doing. Perhaps it’s a misunderstanding that arose with the birth of religious and palatial architecture. The look of the films is something that can’t be determined a priori of the rest of its conception. Even for me it’s difficult to distinguish the difference between my films and others, just because of their look. I can say that I acknowledge that my films and many others from other directors don’t affirm reality, they rather question it. Question what we call natural. What seems to have arisen without the will of anyone in particular.
I understand that you devote a lot of time to the sound design of your films—it certainly comes through in the nuanced soundtracks. Could you describe how you record sound and how this relates to how you want to tell stories?
I became interested in films because of my devotion to oral narrative—a devotion that arose in my childhood with the stories of my grandmother and our family conversations. Not the mere human voice, but to the voice of those who commit themselves to the conversation, to its drift. That world is full of very particular structures, some of them never taken to the cinema, of course, because our species is very creative in its appropriation of language. However, these structures tend to be neglected as organizers of information, or the story. I think a tyranny arisen from the written word. When I say that sound is important to me, I’m referring to that, which is prior to writing the script itself.
With each of your movies, I find that I’m so impressed by the filmmaking that I need to watch them a second or third time to make sense of the story. What inspires you to include so many ellipses in your stories? On a related note, do you have any expectations of your viewers when they’re watching your films?
This is related to what I told you before. Let’s imagine a world where just a few films are produced, but it’s necessary to see them several times. That world can exist, it can even be profitable. So why doesn’t this exist? Because of how we organized our system of industrial consumption, around the new, fast and abundant. This world could be otherwise, and I’ve not given up yet.
Perhaps my favorite aspect of your films is your sense of visual composition—there’s always as much going on outside the frame as there is inside. How do you go about framing your shots? How do you organize the offscreen action?
Framing is an opportunity to break the tremendous power of the image in relation to its referent. This is very unlikely to happen in the sonic dimension, because sound is ambiguous in respect with its referent. You need just a second of a lion image, tenths of seconds, to recognize it. But with a single sound we need more time and even then we will not be entirely sure if it’s a lion or a cheetah or a big, angry cat. So when I frame I try to generate a bit of ambiguity, because I believe that with our strongly visual culture, we believe we dominate the whole world, that we understand it, that we know what it is. But I’m not so sure about this. For me it’s better to go slowly, to hesitate, to grope. Not understanding, it’s an excellent beginning.
What inspired you to adapt Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel? Did you feel that it related to your other films thematically, or did you feel that this marked a new direction for you?
Yes, I think my characters are related. I like characters on the periphery of power, on the periphery of the relevant historical narrative. Characters that don’t seem to define the historical discourse. Because that’s where I feel comfortable observing. And I would like to be able to go further, to the margins of what we believe our race is, to the places where space and time are organized with other categories, the neighborhoods where everything I’ve had since I was born is still missing. But it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to get rid of our prejudices.
Zama is your first feature film to be set in the past. How much of your re-creation of the 18th century was determined by research and how much was the product of your imagination?
That’s something very difficult to determine now. I’ve read many texts of the 18th century that have illuminated things that have been invaded by imagination, as is what usually happens. But at this point, it’s difficult for me to distinguish one thing from the other.
Do you consider there to be a thematic connection between Zama and your first three films? And if so, how?
The outdoors. It’s something that excites me and constantly forces me to ask myself about everything. When you go to the desert—and that’s why the anchorites and the mystics went to the desert—you face that terrible encounter with the universe, especially at night, where darkness allows us to see better. And we are outdoors, without all the inventions with which we have concealed the enormous absurdity of existence, and for that very reason, it’s something wonderful. In my films I try to create the outdoors.
Zama begins with a scene of the protagonist spying on a group of nude women, who then attempt to chase him away. Does the novel also begin this way or was this your decision? If it was your decision, why did you choose to start the story this way?
Poor Zama, he is listening more than watching, but they accuse him of voyeurism. This is one of the first scenes in the book, but not the first one. I like that scene because I see a man who misses conversations, family. I also perceive his desire, and the impossibilities that Zama has with that.
Do you consider the character of Don Diego de Zama to be sympathetic? The film’s attitude toward him feels elusive.
Oh, yes. I believe in the film as a whole. I’m not demanding the characters to seduce the public.
I noticed that the camera rarely moves in Zama; in fact, many of the shots look like tableaux. What motivated this creative decision?
It’s on the first shooting week that you realize how you are going to do your film. Shootings should start directly on the second week, but that’s, of course, a very expensive thing to do. In this film there were many people on scene, I’m crazy about the possibility of shooting lots of people, and I’d rather do internal movements than moving the camera. If you give me the choice to shoot on the moon or in a market, I assure you that I’ll choose the market. Because of the people. Actually I feel claustrophobic when thinking of a spaceship, I think that would influence too.
I love Rui Poças’s work on Zama. Between this, Good Manners, and his work for João Pedro Rodrigues and Miguel Gomes, I think he’s one of the most versatile cinematographers working today. How did you come to work with him on this project? Could you describe your working relationship?
It was my Brazilian producer Vania Catani who put us in touch. They had worked together before. Rui is the ideal man for any difficult quest; he’s always in good mood, always open and willing to try something else. He’s an excellent partner. And well, anyone can see he’s excellent at cinematography as well. We took the decision to avoid candles and fire along the film. We wanted to think about the past without being able to lean and rest on those common places. That was very helpful.
The Gene Siskel Film Center will be reviving your first three films in conjunction with the local premiere of Zama. Have your opinions of these movies changed over time? Do you ever revisit your earlier work?
It hasn’t been that long since I did those film. I can still see every mistake. I remember everything that I ever wanted to change or correct. Unfortunately I’m unable to watch the films as a whole. I always felt that the act of finishing a film is an act of faith, because one can only see fragments.
I understand that The Headless Woman was inspired by one of your dreams. Was this the first time you looked for inspiration in dreams? Also, did your dreams inspire Zama in any way? I ask because both films are very dreamlike in their handling of time—it’s difficult to determine in both movies whether they take place over days, weeks, or months. Do you enjoy playing with temporality?
I often try to disturb our perception as viewers. I do that by reorganizing the different elements of the story. And to me, that is a condition for thought: to disturb what’s established. I believe that state is needed for any new idea to appear. In Zama it was very clear for me, since the very beginning of the writing process, that rhythm would be a key element for the film. I mean that specific rhythm you can find in the film—which is not precisely a roller-coaster. I find myself thinking more and more about rhythm being the key; it has to be with time, of course, but it’s not only about duration. Rhythm as the way in which a spectator goes over the image, reads it, depletes it.
I think that one of the more encouraging trends of the last two decades has been the rise of female auteurs all over Latin and South America. Do you consider yourself part of this movement? Do you feel that the South American film industry has changed since you started making films?
I’ve always felt that filmmaking was a women’s activity. It all came up from a misunderstanding: when I was young, the most successful Argentinian film was Camila, directed by María Luisa Bemberg and produced by Lita Stantic. They both were all over the media, interviewed by most reporters and critics. So I thought it was like that. Like cooking. Look how interesting; a misunderstanding can change one’s history. I was born in 1966; decades ago there had been brave women fighting for a more just, more equal world. So I grew up in this world where feminism has been by far the most transforming force around. And I’ve enjoyed myself the fruits of these brave women’s fights. But I believe we’re still owing our time very important battles. Such as more access to film for black people. And for Indians. I use those strong words due to respect to the poetry of Victoria Santa Cruz. Check YouTube: “Me gritaron negra“.
Lucrecia Martel will appear at tonight’s screening of Zama at 6:15 PM, Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State, 312-846 2800, siskelfilmcenter.org, $11, $6 members.