Argentinean auteur Lucrecia Martel on Zama

A decade on from her discombobulating masterpiece The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel is back with Zama. The Argentinean director discusses the art of adaptation and the importance of sound in her films

Feature by Philip Concannon | 16 May 2018
  • Zama

Lucrecia Martel has taken a long and winding road to Zama. In 2011, after spending two years developing an adaptation of Héctor Germán Oesterheld's science-fiction comic The Eternaut, she abandoned the project when the necessary funding fell through. Following this disappointment, Martel decided she needed a break and took a boat trip along the Paraná River as an opportunity to catch up with her reading, which is how she came into contact with Zama. Written in 1956 by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama was gradually recognised over the subsequent decades as one of the great Argentine novels. The story of a frustrated conquistador in 18th century Paraguay, it’s a departure for Martel in many ways – her first adaptation, her first period piece and her first film with a male protagonist – but the end result feels very much like a Lucrecia Martel film.

When we meet Martel, she’s sitting outside a London members’ club enjoying a coffee and puffing away contentedly on her trademark cigar. Speaking through a translator, she is a thoughtful and engaging interviewee but – as is the case with her films – her answers to questions often come from unexpected angles. For example, when asked if she immediately visualised the film when she read di Benedetto’s novel, she says it’s more accurate to say that she heard it.

“When you read a book there's a sound to it. We tend to think of films and books as very different, because with a book you have letters on pages and with film you have the image, but they both have a sound,” she explains. “Literature has a sound and a rhythm. What is that sound? What is the sound that we have in our head as we read? When we read about horses or birds, we don't just imagine how they are or what they look like, we also imagine the sound that they create. I think when we talk about adapting a book to film, we underestimate that aspect.”

Sound in Lucrecia Martel's films

Sound is the single most important aspect of filmmaking for Martel. When she is writing her screenplays she begins by finding the sound effects that will go towards building the multi-layered soundscape her films are noted for. “All those off-screen sounds during dialogues that focus on Don Diego de Zama were decisions that I was making at the writing stage,” she says. “To give you a concrete example from Zama, the birds, the toads, the insects in the book, we knew from the outset that we wanted them to sound slightly electronic. They are natural, but they seem electronic. These decisions can seem very arbitrary but they are decisions that I take very early on, and during the filming process we were very attentive to make sure that we recorded the sounds of all the insects and toads.”

It’s a fascinating and unusual experience to have a conversation with a filmmaker who places the image some way down her list of priorities. Even when asked about the way she works with her cinematographers to craft her precisely composed frames, she steers her answer away and back to her favoured subject. It’s perhaps telling that she has worked with a different director of photography on each film, while her sound designer, Guido Berenblum, has been a constant and essential collaborator. “The image, for me, is something that I see as a different experiment in every film, so I see changing the director of photography as a reasonable move from film to film. This probably comes from sound films, this idea that firstly the image is produced and then the sound is produced to accompany it.” It’s this understanding of sound’s potential that makes her use of off-screen space so potent. “With the visuals you can create a space but the sound is much more effective at creating tension, because it comes from everywhere.”

This sense of immersion is key to the way Martel recreates the 18th century in Zama. Her previous three films (La Ciénaga, The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman) have all been contemporary stories set in Salta, the town in Argentina in which Martel was raised, and all have explored the anxieties of the country’s middle-class. In switching her focus to a different time and place, Martel found that the devil is in the details. “There is a detail in all period dramas in Latin America, that leather boots will have a heel that's a hard leather, almost like wood. So if I was to put those characters in that environment with those boots, first of all it would be absurd, and secondly it would give them an impact, a resonance to their footsteps that wasn't really appropriate, because they're all such fragile people.” While the director cites some films as possible “relatives” of Zama, such as Mario Monicelli’s L'armata Brancaleone and Wojciech Has’s The Saragossa Manuscript, she mainly used other period films as examples of what not to do. “These sort of films always tend to be very solemn, and I thought it was important for the film to not be solemn.”

Crime, punishment, and Vicuña Porto

She certainly achieved that aim. In adapting di Benedetto’s book, Martel has accentuated the story’s dark streak of ironic comedy and also taken us outside of Zama’s first-person narrative to view his irrevocable decline from a measured distance. The more desperate Don Diego de Zama gets to escape this bureaucratic purgatory and return to civilisation, the further he gets from it, becoming diminished and humiliated in every scene until he is a shell of the man who looked so imperious in the film’s opening scene. She has also given a greater prominence to the futile pursuit of Vicuña Porto, a possibly mythical bandit, wanted for multiple crimes, whose absence dominates so much of the film and, Martel explains, gives Zama a contemporary resonance.

“I think Vicuña Porto is like the enemy we all need, the scapegoat,” she says. “It's more like a social construction of the enemy. I don't know if you get the same thing here, but in Latin America there has been a very strong discourse on this idea in relation to crime. With crime, and the same thing happens with terrorism, a crime is never seen as the consequence of something. Often in Argentina, when there are 15-year-olds or 20-year-olds committing a robbery, and it's immediately deemed that they're a nasty person; they're lazy; it's in their nature; they don't want to work. What we don't do is stop and think about why that person was prepared to risk so much for so little – what are they lacking? Robbery is never understood or seen as somebody taking a huge risk with their life. It's always an attack on private property. What is it that pushes that person to take that risk? It's an obvious question that society chooses to overlook. Vicuña Porto is the enemy we need to be able to justify the inequalities and injustices that exist.”

Zama was a tough film to make. It was difficult to get financed, the production was plagued by bad weather, and the director herself was struck by a debilitating illness that kept her out of action for eight months. The whole process took four years, and having already spoken about how hard she finds the filmmaking process in the past, could this mean we’ll have to wait another decade for her next film? Fortunately, she has good news on that front, revealing that she is currently finishing an essay film about Javier Chocobar, the Diaguita leader who was assassinated in 2008. “His story reveals a particular link between image and power,” she says. Another departure, then, and yet it sounds like perfect material for Lucrecia Martel.

Released 25 May by New Wave