A llama under a palm tree on the shore of a lagoon. This unusual image may seem like a geographical anomaly, but Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel assures me it’s not, at least not in the world she has created for her new film. She and her crew are based in a hotel overlooking the Chascomús Lagoon, only 80 miles from Buenos Aires – although in the fictional world of Zama (based on a novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto), the set consisting of llama, palm tree and lagoon stands in for the shoreline of a Paraguayan city never mentioned by name but which we assume is the capital, Asunción, in the year 1790.
Martel is coming to the end of an intense nine-week shoot – involving 52 days of actual filming, complicated by bad weather – in the provinces of Formosa, Corrie-tes and Buenos Aires. What she’s shooting now, based on her own script, is the film’s opening scene, in which a prisoner who has been tortured (Jorge Román, the lead in Pablo Trapero’s 2002 El bonaerense) confesses to an absurd crime in a government office.
As Martel repeatedly adjusts details within the shot – a hairstyle, the position of a shoulder, the amount of perspiration – and moves the camera minutely, the llama strolls off set, getting dangerously close to the lights and panels that are illuminating the hotel room. But, as if the animal were aware of the boundaries, it stops just before crashing, thereby avoiding chaos. It seems that the animal trainers are aware of every detail.
Martel’s concentration on set is such that she is not even aware that the llama has moved off it. Zama is her first film since The Headless Woman in 2008, and one she waited four years to make. It marks a series of firsts for her: this is her first period film, her first film shot in digital, the first one in which the action has taken place outside Salta – her home province, where she shot her last three films – and her first literary adaptation.
“I have 1,000 things to say against the idea of making a novel into a film,” she admits, once the day’s filming is over. “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.”
Zama, published in 1956, is a book with a near-mythic status in Spanish-language literature (and the first English translation is due to appear next year, before the film comes out). Though the novel took a few decades to acquire its well-deserved reputation, it has had some illustrious admirers. Jorge Luis Borges said that di Benedetto, “has written essential pages that have touched me and carry on touching me”. More recently, Roberto Bolaño called Zama “one of the most significant novels I have ever read,” and wrote a short story, ‘Sensini’, about a chapter in his own life that related to his mentor di Benedetto.
Martel’s choice of Zama as her first literary adaptation has a backstory. After The Headless Woman, the director was contracted to write and direct a film adaptation of El eternauta by Héctor G. Oesterheld, a sci-fi comic regarded as a classic of Argentine popular literature, which also dates from the 50s. But after Martel had devoted two years of work to it, with the script already completed, the project was cancelled. So she ran away.
“I was running away from not having made El eternauta which, in the version I had written, ended with the survivors escaping via the Paraná river to the north. And I took that same escape route – I took a boat up the river, and there I read Zama, which takes place in a neighbouring region. I was coming off a job of almost two years in which I’d had to inhabit a timeframe outside my own present. And the process of travelling to the future or to the past is so fascinating that I was just in the right mood for the novel: that place, that time, that idea of paradise lost. One full of injustice, yes, but with a diversity that has disappeared. There’s some of this in the novel, aside from the personal existential circumstances: the continent it described was astonishing – a world where you crossed a river and you didn’t know where you were.”
Zama tells the story of Don Diego de Zama, a Creole civil servant working for the Paraguayan government under Spanish rule in the last stages of the colonial era. Zama is a man who waits and waits for things that never come to pass: a move to a better location (Buenos Aires or Madrid), news from his family, a salary that’s been delayed for months, the sexual attentions of a high-born Spanish lady, recognition of his work, the status of a hero. Over the course of the decade covered by the novel, which is divided into three episodes – 1790, 1794 and 1799 – Zama falls into a spiral of frustration, alienation and self-destruction, which ultimately leads him to attempt one last great feat that he hopes will redeem him in the eyes of his Spanish masters. “What makes the character of Zama modern, and the reason why people still get excited about the book, apart from the quality of its writing, is that he suffers from a malaise that is very current: he thinks only in terms of what the future will bring,” says Martel. “I don’t know if this contemporary madness, in which the day-to-day has no value, has also been the case at any other time, but in the novel everything is to come. That is Zama’s great tragedy. Another interesting thing in the book is to do with the idea of identity as a trap. What is identity in the period when the book is set? Isn’t there something absurd about the notion of a Latin American identity?”
The novel’s narrative is closer to the French nouveau roman and existentialist classics than to the traditional historical novel (“comparable to major works such as Nausea and The Outsider and in many ways superior to those two books,” claimed the great Argentinian novelist Juan José Saer). It’s written in a precise, inimitable prose that one would think must have posed an extra challenge in the transposition to the screen. “In fact, di Benedetto’s style of writing is what makes it easy to envisage the novel being translated cinematically,” says Martel. “Because his language is so radically inventive, it somehow frees you from a lot of things; it nourishes you and it encourages you to create. I thought it’d be interesting to turn Zama’s paranoia inside out – to see the world through his eyes and find visual ways to transmit that state of mind. Let’s see if it works.”
Zama is played by the Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, who Martel has admired since she saw him in Arturo Ripstein’s Deep Crimson (1996). Throughout the various stages of his agonising wait, he’s accompanied by the Spanish actress Lola Dueñas, the Argentine Juan Minujín and the Brazilian Matheus Nachtergaele. This mixture of nationalities is in part the outcome of a multinational co-production – the Argentine production company ReiCine and Brazil’s Bananeira Film, together with another nine countries, including the Almodóvar brothers’ El Deseo, Patagonik and Gael García Bernal’s Canana – but it is also a way of underlining the region’s miscegenation and cultural blendings at that time, when Castilian, Portuguese and Guaraní were mixed in with dozens of indigenous tongues, to the extent that the notion of a national identity seemed an unrealisable goal.
Given the rich cultural mix that existed, Martel was keen not to fall into the academicism of some literary adaptations of the colonial period. “I tried not to use pure Spanish as the language of the bourgeoisie,” she explains. “They all have different accents from the interior and some speak Guaraní. To me that pure Spanish sounds very much like los héroes de la patria [heroes of the father-land]. All that heroic past and brave macho stuff makes me ill. And this is a novel whose protagonist is very alert to his desire, which is not a very masculine thing.” Other radical ideas pertaining to the mise en scène are noticeable on the set: not using candles or fire to cast light, for example (“I didn’t want the ease they provide, I wanted to force myself to think”), as well as the lack of any reference to the Catholic church. “There’s not one crucifix in the film. I wanted to show a vision of the past that is not mediated by the involvement of the church; it’s like an exercise to see if we can manage to find something else in this world.”
This is also the first film in which Martel has had a male lead. “Zama is a male character, but I don’t know if he is masculine or feminine,” she explains. “I do identify more with him than I do with Alien’s Lieutenant Ripley if I’m honest, even if it pains me to say so. Working on this character brought me closer to the worst in me, and reaffirmed my belief that the best in someone can be found in exactly the same place. That idea, repeated 1,000 times, that in order to find yourself you need to get lost, is true.”
As night falls on the set, the cold outside draws everyone on the team into the small room where Martel, her Portuguese director of photography Rui Poças (Tabú, To Die Like a Man) and her sound recorder Guido Berenblum control what’s going on in the next room with their walkie-talkies and monitors, and occasionally by passing through a small door, which makes them duck each time, hitting their heads more than once. The semi-naked prisoner carries on relating his crime, for hours it seems, to a point where it’s not clear if the person asking for mercy is the actor or his character. He waits, as Martel waited for so many years, and Zama even more so: for that instant to be the instant, for this film to be the film that all of them have dreamt of making.
Two days after finishing the shoot and still clearly moved by it, Martel confirms that impression. “The end of the shoot was worthy of a soap opera,” she tells me. “We were all crying. I had never experienced seeing so many people so moved. The effort it took making this film, more so bearing in mind how wretched making this kind of cinema is… We felt as if we were undertaking a heroic mission. I hope our experience, like Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, is useful in showing that travelling to the past doesn’t necessarily need a huge budget.”
In a sense, it seems curious that Alonso and Martel, two of the most representative filmmakers of the New Argentine Cinema that emerged two decades ago, and which at the time staked its claim to being a cinema that drank from the well of everyday life, are today making period films with international casts.
“Our generation was not against period or genre cinema,” explains Martel. ”We were young, and in order to make our way in the world we started investigating our familiar or regional surroundings, which were the most accessible. The local film language was empty then and everything had to be given a little bit of a shake. But you change. I always worked with [professional] actors, but Lisandro was one of the most resistant [to using them], and I’m sure that after working with Viggo Mortensen he opened up a wonderful world to himself. And especially to one thing which for me is very important in cinema, which is to say artifice, or representation. If you spend all your time striving to capture a specific historical reality, then you can get lost. I think that is cinema’s big weakness: wanting to pretend to be true when, on the contrary, one of its huge strengths is the possibility it allows of giving yourself to fiction.”