Writer and director Lucrecia Martel’s new feature Zama is just her fourth in 16 years and her first since The Headless Woman nine years ago. Yet the anticipation of her devotees never wavered, and when Zama was unveiled in Venice and then at the BFI London Film Festival in 2017 they weren’t disappointed. It felt like business as usual, another filmmaking masterclass, as if she’d never been away. The Argentine is the Terrence Malick of Latin cinema: idiosyncratic, quite brilliant, filmmaking in her own time and by her own rules.
Like Malick, Martel resists easy categorisation. While often associated with the New Argentine Cinema of the late 1990s and early 2000s, the strong neo-realist streak in that generation doesn’t feature in her work. Instead, her films are uniquely atmospheric, sensorial experiences whose impeccable compositions are matched by richly textured soundtracks, their narratives at once serious and playful. It’s an enigmatic, seductive form of storytelling. No wonder Pedro Almodóvar has been a constant champion and producer of her work.
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All filmed in her home province of Salta, The Swamp (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008) involve critical observations on family, religion, class and Argentina’s extremely conservative bourgeoisie, whose culture is still informed by Spanish colonialism and its racist social divisions.
“In the north we have this clear idea that ‘they’ are the servants, we are the owners of the land, the owners of rights, the owners of everything,” she has said. “I’m not trying to attack them. Just wake them up.”
After The Headless Woman, Martel spent a few years on an adaptation of a science-fiction comic, a long-held dream that sadly didn’t materialise, and made a handful of shorts that continue to reflect her outrage at the treatment of indigenous people, as does Zama.
Despite her assertion that “I’m not in love with cinema,” the current retrospective at BFI Southbank and the ICA reveals a filmmaker who uses the form with imagination, wit, style and a keen social conscience. “All the technical aspects of cinema – the camera, the lighting, the electrical equipment – remind me of playing doctor,” she’s said. “The camera is like a microscope, behind it I feel as though I am examining my characters. Though I have the very strong feeling that the closer I get, the less I know them, and the faces become more and more mysterious.”
Let’s look at each of her films in turn.
Dead King (Rey muerto, 1995)
Martel’s breakthrough came when she entered the Historias breves short film competition, whose resulting anthology heralded New Argentine Cinema. Dead King is a modern-day western and an exuberant assault on Latin machismo. Instead of a lone man entering town, this has a woman leaving with her children – much to the annoyance of her husband, the local crime boss. There are touches of Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez and Sergio Leone, but also signs of what was to come in the teeming life that Martel brings colourfully to the screen. And there’s a terrific twist.
The Swamp (La ciénaga, 2001)
Martel’s dissection of the indolent, self-absorbed bourgeoisie of her home province is a thrillingly fully-formed debut feature. From its opening scene, of a clammy, drink-sodden gathering around a stagnant swimming pool, the tale of two families heading towards tragedy during a summer in the countryside never loses its grip. The film introduces many of Martel’s themes and tropes: dysfunctional families, racial and class tension, the mockery of religion (a TV news item involves the sighting of the Virgin on top of a water tank), the ability to direct children and depict the chaos of large clans, and the potent combination of sound and image to create a languid sense of unease.
The Holy Girl (La niña santa, 2004)
Atmospherically set in a sprawling spa hotel as it plays host to a medical convention, this is a sensual and mischievous account of a 16-year-old girl stumbling between the indoctrinations of her Catholic education and her burgeoning sexuality. The adult characters are variously lonely, disaffected and randy, their emotions coming to the boil around the thermal pool. As a writer, Martel sprinkles her scenario with symbolism and wonderfully pithy dialogue. As a director, her use of close-up, editing and sound (the mix resonates with lapping water, catechism and the bizarre tunes played on a theremin) combine to create a mood of mystery and amusement.
The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza, 2008)
On the surface, Martel’s stunning third feature is a hit-and-run drama, in which a dentist, Veronica, starts to unravel after leaving the scene of an accident, uncertain whether she’s hit a dog or an indigenous boy. But as Veronica’s family closes ranks around her, Martel weaves a double critique: another damning exposé of the ruling class’s appalling treatment of indigenous people, alongside an echo of the complicity and guilt felt by those who turned the other cheek during the dictatorship. As ever, she achieves her ends obliquely, through Verónica’s traumatised, dislocated perspective.
Nueva Argirópolis (2010) was commissioned by the Ministry of Culture as part of Argentina’s bicentennial celebrations. That didn’t stop the director questioning the notion of national pride, with a tale about a group of Indian people arrested when attempting to cross a river on makeshift rafts. Leagues (Leguas, 2015) provocatively raises issues of education and land theft. On a different note, the madcap Fish (Pescados, 2010) features talking fish that pine for a life on the road – as cars.
Martel’s first period film feels as timeless as all of her work. Adapted from Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel, it’s set in an unspecified South American colony in the late 18th century, where a mid-level government official, Zama, is desperate for a more prestigious posting, but is destined to wait forever in vain. His Kafkaesque nightmare includes a flirtatious but evasive object of desire, a mythical bandit, Indians taking the upper hand and a scene-stealing llama. Gorgeously photographed and with another deliciously intricate soundscape, this is an exotic, enigmatic, mesmerising film.
Originally published: 24 November 2021