Zama and Lucrecia Martel’s Unique Cinematic Language

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The cinema of Lucrecia Martel is difficult to categorise. Her filmography is idiosyncratic, yet her sense of cinema is entirely singular. Martel is an Argentine filmmaker, often associated with the New Argentine Cinema movement established in the 1990s. Whilst not as unified in aesthetics or ideology as the likes of French New Wave, New Argentine Cinema was “united by a desire to depict original creative stories that broke away from the past yet still maintained a foothold in Argentine society.”[1] Through an effort to rebuild Argentine cinema on a local and global stage, this new wave of filmmakers sought to hold the mirror up to Argentina, uncovering suppressed narratives of a country working through an economic crisis. Martel debuted her first feature in 2001, La Ciénaga/The Swamp (Dir. Lucrecia Martel, 2001) which portrayed a self-indulgent and self-pitying bourgeois family on holiday in a country estate. The film’s scrutiny of the bourgeoisie placed the film comfortably within the New Argentine wave, yet it also signalled an inventive audiovisual language that distinguished Martel as a wholly unique voice.

Martel’s latest feature, Zama, is effectively a blueprint for her distinctive yet anomalous cinematic language. Since her debut, Martel has released only four feature films, with Zama coming after an almost decade long interval (when asked at an audience Q&A why it had been nine years since her last film, Martel deftly answered, “I don’t like making them”). Indeed, Zama’s production appears dispiriting. The film was shot in the provinces of Formosa, Corrie-tes and Buenos Aires, with bad weather complicating an already intense nine-week shoot. [2] Before production had even begun, Martel had run into difficulty trying to get another film off the ground, an adaptation of Argentine sci-fi comic The Eternaut. The project fell apart, leading Martel to switch her focus from the distant future to the distant past – thus taking on an adaptation of another work of Argentine literature, Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 historical novel Zama.

Martel’s film follows the same basic plot of the novel, telling the story of Don Diego de Zama, a minor official stationed in an outpost of the colonial Spanish Empire in the 1790s. Zama, trapped and isolated by his backwater location, longs for a transfer that will reunite him with his wife and give him the career he feels he deserves. Haplessly trying to persuade the powers that be to facilitate this, Zama is denied at every turn by the bureaucratic structure of the colonial empire. Despite the fact that this is her first adaptation, the transformational process from literature is not a confining one for Martel. She uses the novel as a rich source of inspiration, focusing on re-creating the feeling of the book. Di Benedetto’s novel was not translated into English until 2016, and it was during this process that the book’s translator Esther Allen heard word of Martel’s production. Allen sought out Martel’s earlier work, and “marvelled at the degree to which her films resembled Di Benedetto’s prose.”[3]

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Perhaps the most striking quality of Zama’s cinematic language is its use of sound. The sound-scape of the film is one of immersion, aiming to put us on the island and at times in Zama’s head. We hear the constant call of crickets, the rustling of trees, villagers shouting in the background. This sound-scape is realistic, but Martel takes it to its limit. The ambience becomes so intense that it becomes fraught, the realism of the sounds tipping over into the non-natural and becoming dreamlike (or perhaps, nightmare-like) in resonance. Often we hear lines of dialogue inexplicably repeated or delivered from an unknown place off-screen, undercutting who may be speaking and to whom. Zama’s use of sound is one that is not easily conducive to the paradigm of continuity editing, it constantly announces itself and calls the visual into question. The result is an aural experience that is so real it becomes surreal - a sound-scape that immerses whilst simultaneously threatens to overwhelm.

In the same way that its sound skirts this threshold, the film’s sense of time and reality is also unstable. Martel is an expert at sustaining a feeling, drawing out an atmosphere like a prolonged musical note played across a string. Zama sustains the sensation of teetering on the verge, both the verge of reality and the verge of chaos. Don Diego de Zama is constantly disorientated, unable to control his own fate or participate in the movement around him. The film mirrors Zama’s own sense of unravelling, as it begins to slip through time. The novel is comprised of three distinct sections, 1790, 1794 and 1799, but the passing of time is not as easily demarcated in the film. In fact, the film does not seem to wholly subscribe to a linear construction of time at all. Take for example the character of Vicuña Porto, a fearsome villain who is simultaneously a figure in stories of his defeat yet also discussed as an ever-present threat still to be conquered. Vicuña is an embodiment of the film’s rejection of linear time, making sense only within the film’s own “spiral of time,” where he is “both past victory and future challenge.”[4] Just as the film troubles the rigidity of our temporal assumptions, it too questions our spatial orientation. The sudden vibrancy of the last third of the film comes as a bewildering explosion of dazzling colour and texture. We find ourselves disorientated, suddenly somewhere else.

Zama’s unsettling atmosphere informs its interpretation of colonial history. In challenging the perceived linearity of time that both history and cinema have traditionally subscribed to, Martel rejects the colonial narrative of the European occupation of Latin America as one of progress, individualism and heroism. As critic Erika Balsom puts it, Zama’s “portrait of colonial enterprise goes nowhere, quite purposefully.”[5] Don Diego de Zama’s misfortune demonstrates more than simple bureaucratic incompetency, it is precisely a narrative of the structural absurdity of colonialism itself. The film suggests the violence of this system not through direct representation of brutality, but rather through affectively weaving it into its audiovisual experience. Zama’s political outlook comes less through direct pedagogy and more through an immersive experience of upending and unspooling, where our protagonist and our perception are constantly at the brink. It is evidence of Lucrecia Martel’s singular cinematic language that Zama sustains such a distinct feeling that ultimately leads us to its politics: an affective experience of wrongness, of unravelling, and of an all round queasy experience of the (dis)order of colonialism.

Jessica McGoff 

Freelance film writer and video essayist 

May 2018


 [1] Sachin Gandhi, “New Argentine Cinema.” Calgary Cinema.

[2] Diego Lerer, “Lucrecia Martel on location with Zama.” Sight and Sound

[3] Esther Allen, “The Crazed Euphoria of Lucrecia Martel’s ‘Zama.’” The New York Review of Books

[4] Erika Balsom, “Breaking time’s arrow: Lucrecia Martel and Zama at the 2017 LFF.” Sight and Sound.

[5] Ibid.

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