Tripping with Lucrecia Martel

While Lucrecia Martel's fourth feature film delves into the past for the first time, Zama has just as much to say about modern society as in her celebrated earlier films. Ahead of the Master Class she is giving this Sunday, the Argentinian director tells us about her latest film. “I couldn't make movies if I was going mad myself.” 

It took Martel more than nine years to get Zamaoff the ground. It is her most ambitious film yet, both in content and form. With her first three films La ciénaga (2000), The Holy Girl (2004) and La mujer sin cabeza (2008), Martel proved that she wouldn't hesitate to rub salt in the open wounds of society. Zama may jump back in time a few hundred years, but the story still speaks volumes on how the repercussions of the slave trade and colonial rule of that time can still be felt today.

Protagonist Don Diego de Zama is a seventeenth century Spanish officer, who spends his days waiting around in the small South American town he is in charge of. Zama's waiting for acknowledgment from the king, and for a transfer back home. When neither one is forthcoming, he sets out on a doomed hunt for a mythical bandit in an attempt to redeem himself. Instead, Zama slowly but surely descends into a hallucinatory journey through the inhospitable landscapes that seem to enclose him in an increasingly tight embrace.

I have always made my films in isolation.” – Lucrecia Martel

Martel based her film on the eponymous 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, a modernist classic that has only recently been rediscovered outside the Spanish-speaking parts of the world. Martel: “The book has a great richness of themes, but what interested me most are its ideas on identity. Zama thinks he is all that, but when he doesn't get what he expects, he gets tied up in his own frustrations. That seemed to me a typical problem of modernity: when you're stuck in your identity, it will end in frustration. We need to be more flexible and let go of rigid definitions of ourselves.”

  • Still: Zama

  • Still: Zama

Insects and snakes
To capture Zama's trip, Martel and her crew traveled deep into the rugged swamplands of northern Argentina. “It's a region with a very tough landscape, one where I have always wanted to film in. It's a very interesting place, very beautiful but also very challenging. A few months of the year it's completely flooded, at other times it's withered and barren, and there are insects and poisonous snakes everywhere. It's definitely not for tourists!”

However, those challenges were part of the appeal, says the 51-year-old director. “I have always made my films in isolation. My crew and I are just as cut off from the world as my characters often are. Did we turn crazy like Zama? No way. I couldn't make a movie if I was going mad myself. No one should have to suffer to make a film. There's no need for real drama to make an actor cry. I detest directors who mistreat their actors, just to get a better scene. The beauty of cinema is exactly that it is a lie, you're pretending. I don't believe in the method approach. Things should be fake. Everything in cinema is fake.”

Photo in header: Photo: Lucretia Martel | Interview: Joost Broeren-Huitenga