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The Politics of Waiting: Lucrecia Martel on Zama

Daniel Giménez Cacho and Lola Dueñas in Zama, courtesy of Strand Releasing

Lucrecia Martel’s ambitious historical drama Zama opens with a decidedly muted image. The film’s eponymous protagonist stands alone at a river’s edge staring into space with a look of quiet expectation. The water faintly laps at his feet, and a pale sky provides an indifferent light. Suited in full colonial regalia, he appears small and lonely against the rugged landscape, a man lost at the edge of the world.

Moments later, he is seen hiding in the grass like a naughty child, spying on a group of naked women bathing in the river. They laugh and call out, “Voyeur! Voyeur!” as he scrambles away humiliated. When one of the indigenous women catches up to him and boldly grabs his ankle during his clumsy escape, he explodes and ruthlessly thrashes her. The farce suddenly turns bitter as he pathetically reasserts colonial order.

As a midlevel administrator of the Spanish crown, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is all too aware of his station. Marooned in a backwater post in 1790s Paraguay, where he’s gone to seed, he lives in a state of purgatory, endlessly waiting for a royal transfer that is forever delayed. He’s fathered an illegitimate child with a local woman and exerts what little power he has by lashing out at his disobedient assistant or granting slave owners the right to more bodies after they ruefully slaughtered the last batch. His only pleasure, it seems, comes from a haughty noblewoman, Luciana (Lola Dueñas), who flirts with him out of boredom and vanity.

Ambitious, corrupt and petty, Zama is blind to the absurdity of his existence. He has begun hearing voices, suggesting that he is well on his way to psychosis or a kind of cruel salvation. That neither Luciana nor the king will ultimately grant his wishes dooms him to be a “victim of expectation.” Things go downhill for Zama until he learns to abandon all hope. In a quixotic gamble to escape in the film’s hypnotic and terrifying final third, he joins a gang hunting down a notorious outlaw. That’s when Zama shifts gears from claustrophobic chamber piece to full-blown visionary western as Martel takes us deep into the heart of darkness.

It’s been nine long years since the Argentine auteur’s last outing, the divisive existential thriller The Headless Woman, a film that offers viewers a disorienting immersion in the addled mental state of a bourgeois woman who may or may not have committed manslaughter. Zama explores the similarly murky psychological terrain of blindness and culpability, but the film represents Martel’s greatest artistic risk thus far. It’s her first literary adaptation, her first full-blown costume drama and her first adventure film.

During those nine years, Martel kept busy. For a year and a half, she was intensely engaged in writing an adaptation of a popular Argentine science-fiction comic called El Eternauta. By the time the project fell through, she was so immersed in its fantastic world of alien invasions that she had no idea how to move forward while staying in her home of Buenos Aires. So, she followed the example set by the comic book characters and escaped northward, sailing up the Paraná River.

On the journey, Martel brought along books on colonial expeditions to distract herself. Among them was a copy of Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel Zama, given to her by a friend five years earlier. It’s considered a literary masterpiece in the Spanish-speaking world, on par with something like Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. Narrated by Zama in the first person and written in a style that’s highly elliptical, it’s not a work that lends itself easily to adaptation. But for Martel, the novel was contagious, and she knew she had to make a film.

It took four years, about 20 producers and a truncated shoot that required last-minute cuts to the script a month before filming commenced, but the $3.5 million production finally came together. Premiering at Venice and selected as Argentina’s official Oscar entry, Zama has arrived as a major work. More important, Martel has made a film that, despite the challenges, is uncompromising in its idiosyncratic vision of history and cinema.

The youthful 50-year-old writer-director sat down to talk with Filmmaker about developing the film’s unique soundscape, taking cues from 1970s Mexican soap operas and her undying love of horror cinema.

Filmmaker: You’ve talked about the so-called tyranny of the timeline in screenwriting that binds storytelling to a simple cause-and-effect logic. All of your films have worked against this approach by layering narrative events simultaneously. Zama feels more linear, but it’s filled with just as many mysterious slippages. What were some ideas that guided you during the process of writing the screenplay?

Martel: For me, literature relates to film through sound rather than through image. When you read a book, there’s this mysterious phenomenon of a voice that you hear along with all sounds of the environment in which the story is taking place. It’s something that’s very hard to characterize. The other key element in literature is rhythm. Both of these qualities are important characteristics of cinema, and they were crucial for me to pay attention to as I was writing the film. When people usually adapt books, they tend to overlook voice and rhythm in favor of plot and character. With Zama, I really tried to focus on the effect the language was having on me and translate this experience onscreen.

Filmmaker: You’ve described the novel as a soliloquy. This is not easy to translate to film, but you’ve managed to find a way to bring us inside Zama’s addled mind while also revealing slippages between his perception and the actuality of the events that are unfolding.

Martel: We have our emotional experience of time, and we have society’s construct of time as linear. For the most part, interior time is a state of confusion. The duplicity that di Benedetto has written into the characters and situations is an important element. The story unfolds with a kind of circularity that forces the reader to retrace events. You trust Zama’s voice as a character, but you distrust that the events occur in the way that he describes them. In the book, we’re always aware that a character with a particular point of view is telling us what happened. For the film, we used some of the same formal strategies from The Headless Woman to convey this sense of perpetual uncertainty produced by Zama’s subjectivity. (The camera fixes on Zama while offscreen voices channel his thoughts.) And a big part of this is created through a sound design that is not naturalistic. The overall effect is that the viewer never really knows everything that’s going on in a given scene.

Filmmaker: What were the conversations like between you and your sound designer?

Martel: Well, the first important conversation was about how to create a continent that doesn’t have any motorcycles or cars. In my earlier films, it was fine to have background noises of people or the city encroach on the soundtrack. But for Zama, we needed to create a new kind of silence. And if you take a microphone anywhere in Latin America, you will inevitably hear the sounds of a motorcycle. Because we were shooting in Argentina, we knew that recording direct sound was going to be complicated. For financial reasons, we were limited as to how far we could travel for the shoots. At most, we could go 20 or 30 kilometers outside the city. That’s far enough to look like we were in the middle of the jungle, but the modern sounds were still very present. For many scenes, the only solution was to dub all the dialogue. An important decision we made during the sound mix involves windows. During the 1790s, most windows did not have actual glass, so we made sure to bring in the sounds of insects during the interior scenes to emphasize this lack of delineation between interior and exterior space.

Filmmaker: People often remark on the sound design of your films. But your approach originates from a philosophical position rather than a technical interest.  Here, it seems to be about using artifice to challenge notions of historical accuracy and to suggest that our image of history, much like the film itself, is a construction. Of all your films, Zama feels the most overtly theatrical. It certainly has the most dialogue.

Martel: I knew that if I was going to make a period piece film, I wanted to create a new language that was situated in between Old Spanish and what we speak today. There isn’t clear documentation of what spoken language was like in the 18th century. We have letters, but writing at that time was very formal and quite different from the way people actually spoke to each other. So, I had to come up with a more current device. In the 1970s, Mexican TV soap operas created a Spanish that incorporated the different accents from all over Latin America. This was done to make the shows easier to export. Because the motivation was commercial and not aesthetic, it was a fairly low-quality device. But I used that idea as a basis in Zama and combined different accents from Argentina and from Portuñol [a mixture of Spanish and Portuguese]. I wrote detailed notes for the actors with specific pronunciation instructions for each letter of the alphabet.

Basically, we were able to create this imposed linguistic zone on set. When you have all the cast forcing themselves in this new language, you generate a kind of neutrality. I worked with Claudia Cantero, an actress from The Headless Woman, to help train the Argentinian and Mexican actors in this new imagined language. Daniel Giménez Cacho, who plays Zama, is a Mexican actor playing an Argentinian. It was a bit different with the Spanish actress Lola Dueñas and the Brazilian actors. For them, I just gave certain indications.

Filmmaker: The dialogue becomes part of the film’s larger soundscape rather than being treated hierarchically.

Martel: Exactly. It’s something that’s impossible to convey when the film is subtitled for non-Spanish speakers. But it’s also the reason that the film has been received in Argentina as having a very “complete form.” We were able to use language to create a sense of a closed universe. For me, this approach actually made it easier to adapt different fragments of the book because, in a way, the language was already upside down.

Filmmaker: Let’s talk about the film’s music. You use these swooning guitar songs by ’60s Brazilian duo Los Indios Tabajaras, which seem satirical in the colonial context. They call our attention to this disjuncture between Zama’s romantic dreams and the perverse brutality of his existence. But you also use this electronic drone called a Shepard tone, which is an auditory illusion of an infinite ascension of tone. Here, you’re actually using a descending tone.

Martel: Using the Shepard tone was actually our first musical decision for the film. We use it to underline those moments of free falling for Zama, when something terrible or unknown is happening to him. Recently, I was watching Avatar on a plane, and I noticed not only how bad the score was but also how terribly the filmmakers use the music to underscore every action. It becomes a safety net. The film sweeps us into this exciting visual world, but the music is used to comfort and reassure viewers. In fact, the music is actually working against the power of the imagery, dampening its potential. Sound is what makes cinema three-dimensional, but many filmmakers seem to use music to flatten the image. We wanted to avoid this in Zama. Our intention was for the music to always be in contention with the imagery.

Before filming, we visited the Chaco region (where the final section of Zama takes place) to do field recordings. It’s an unusual region that attracts an array of insects and wildlife because it has dramatic floods and droughts. We discovered that many of the frog and insect sounds had an unusual electronic quality. They sounded alien, almost like malfunctioning radios. So, we decided to avoid recording the most lyrical birds and focus on finding only the most mechanical sounds. Finding these natural sounds that didn’t seem natural influenced our overall approach in the sound design.

Filmmaker: You worked with cinematographer Rui Poças, and this is your first film shot digitally. In terms of staging, Zama feels quite different than anything you’ve done before. You’re working more with tableaux, and the interiors feel especially claustrophobic.

Martel: I just can’t stand that empty space in the frame above a person’s head, so I always avoid it. It’s a problem I have, and sometimes perhaps I go too far! Shooting on digital wasn’t an issue for me. I don’t have any particular nostalgia for the analog. My previous films were all shot on 35mm because that’s what we had at the time. We shot Zama digitally because that’s what we had this time. In some situations, such as in low-light conditions, it helped us. But in other ways, it made things more difficult. For instance, the high heat and humidity of our locations posed a problem for the digital cameras because they’re more vulnerable to the effects of moisture. In terms of composing images, it also doesn’t make a difference to me if it’s celluloid or digital. With Zama, I really wanted to avoid the kind of chiaroscuro lighting we’re familiar with in period pieces, like when characters are lit dramatically next to a window during the day or by candlelight at night. Instead, I opted to create more of a flat look similar to ’70s television.

Filmmaker: The final section of the film shifts dramatically in tone and setting. In one gruesome scene, Zama and his gang are attacked by a group of indigenous men on horseback. The action is sped up, rendering the violence almost cartoonish. It made me think of your admiration for horror films like Carnival of Souls.

Martel: The system the men use to entrap Zama is actually my invention. I’m fascinated with these types of mechanisms. Somebody runs and you hear a loud snap and then you see the person suddenly fall. I can spend hours inventing this stuff! Horror cinema was really my film education. As a genre, it has a very interesting philosophical characteristic: it transforms any scenario that’s known or familiar into something unstable. It puts the viewer in a suspecting state. I actually think we should all live in this state permanently. We’d be much better off. The most violent acts seem to occur when someone is absolutely convinced of something. If we distrusted or suspected more of the things around us, we might actually be more tolerant of each other. It seems contradictory, but it’s not.

Filmmaker: di Benedetto’s book is often referred to as a novel about waiting, but you see it as a story about identity. Zama’s entire being is oriented toward this goal of escape, of being elsewhere. The desire and his identity seem entwined.

Martel: Desire creates a kind of timeline with a purpose. It’s about projecting into the future. It’s the opposite of fear, which is not linear. For example, Zama has been selected to represent Argentina in the Oscars this year. Immediately, this triggered a timeline in people’s minds, a series of expectations. Even if it’s not something that I myself desire, this vector has been established. During the nine years I wasn’t filming, people expected that I had to make another film. We’re all conditioned by temporal lines to think like this. We’re all subjected to these absurd vectors. It’s a system we invented. It’s like a car commercial. It doesn’t sell you an object that works well; it sells you the identity of the guy driving the car. Once you buy the identity, you buy everything else. So, it goes back to Zama. The conflict is with identity. The waiting and expectation are just side effects.

Filmmaker: Speaking of desire, what are some things you always wanted to do in a film that Zama finally gave you the chance to do?

Martel: There were many things. Having animals in a film is something that I always wanted. Using elaborate costumes is another thing. In this case, the details force you to consider many things. Most period pieces have characters wearing leather boots. For Zama, the costume designer and I went to observe what people living in the rural areas where we filmed actually wore. In a place that’s so humid, leather boots are useless. These small changes in costumes are significant because they begin to contradict the preconceived image we have of Latin America at that time. In another way, we also applied today’s experience of receiving e-mail to the way in which messengers in the film deliver information. They sort of pop up out of the blue and then disappear.

Filmmaker: In your previous films, you examined the politics of race and class largely through family dramas set among the provincial middle class in your home state of Salta in the north. Racism was glimpsed more obliquely. With Zama, you’re revealing the origins of these attitudes and revealing Argentina’s brutal mistreatment of its nonwhite population. Can you talk about the way that you’ve chosen to depict the slaves in particular?

Martel: We deliberately didn’t have the actors playing the slaves give any sign of submission in their performances. This is something that was in the script from the beginning. We wanted to convey an image of a continent that could rebel at any moment against the existing order. Personally, I think that submission is a difficult act. It’s impossible to do so fully and completely to someone else. Visconti made a short film for Boccaccio ’70, and the way he films the servants smoking and talking on their own made a strong impression on me. In a very simple way, he shows us that while they work as servants, these are people who have their own lives beyond these circumscribed roles. It actually takes very little to avoid such preconceptions of submission, but filmmakers often use broad strokes that underestimate these characters. It only takes a few gestures to communicate this whole outside universe.

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