Argentine director Lucrecia Martel discusses Zama, colonialism, violent masculinity, and how absurdist humour is a potent way to criticize both.
As one of the festival’s most anticipated titles, Zama marked the long awaited return of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel. The film follows the misadventures of Don Diego de Zama (a hypnotic Daniel Giménez Cacho), an 18th century officer of the Spanish Crown who is stranded in what is now Paraguay. Holding onto the promise of a return home, Zama only meets with disappointment and confusion. His exchanges with the Spanish officials are as perplexing as those with the Black and Indigenous slaves around him.
Although the film is an adaptation of an Argentine novel of the same name, Martel’s Zama is much less narrative-driven than her previous, original works. La Ciénaga (2002), The Holy Girl (2004), and The Headless Woman (2008) are social realist dramas with traditional structures. Each focus on female characters, and pointedly critique the hypocrisy of the contemporary Argentine bourgeoisie and its dirty secrets.
Zama similarly attacks the Argentine upper-class, but in a much more oblique way and with a stylised aesthetic never seen from the director before. Eschewing the rules of narrative continuity, Zama perfectly recreates the alienation felt by its protagonist, a man engaged in a perpetual but fruitless search for order and meaning. Yet the film also clearly distances itself from the colonial officer: the gorgeous images stand in amusing contrast to his despair, highlighting the absurdity of his position and looking down on his plight.
Back in Toronto, The Seventh Row met with Lucrecia Martel to talk about colonialism, violent masculinity, and how absurdist humour is a potent way to criticise both.
Seventh Row (7R): Unlike your earlier work, Zama is set in the past, at a specific time and place.
Lucrecia Martel (LM): That comes from the novel, actually. When I read it, I was so captivated by that universe. Making the film became a way to find a way out of it.
7R: The structure of the film isn’t as straightforward as that of your other films. Was that also an effort to get away from the book?
LM: It is linear, but what creates this feeling of strangeness is the way everything is put together: the sound design attracts the attention to different parts of the images, and the editing. I was working with the different layers of the image — the foreground, the background — which gives the film more depth and makes the straightforward narrative feel strange.'I was working with the different layers of the image, which gives the film more depth' - MartelClick To Tweet
I also purposefully did not give too many coordinates or indications of time and place, in order to make every scene less specific. This allows viewers to give themselves to the universe and to experience the film without having these elements to hold on to.
We are not as open to seeing different kinds of films as we are, for example, to listening to different kinds of music. It’s easier to enjoy different kinds of music than it is to enjoy different kinds of films.
7R: Zama has a very different look from your other films. The cinematography is much more colourful, and you use wide shots that are almost like tableaux. It’s a less realistic aesthetic.
LM: Yes, and I also think of the film as science-fiction. I did not aim for painterly images, but for a TV look — the film has that TV color palette. I used the very classic 16:9 format. I didn’t want to use any formal gimmicks. The strangeness of the film is entirely due to the setting and the universe of the film, not to any formal tricks on my part.'I think of the film as science-fiction. I did not aim for painterly images, but for a TV look.' -MartelClick To Tweet
7R: Zama addresses race and class. The Headless Woman did, too, but in a more subtle way: the lead character can get away with what she has done because of her upper class status. Here, through the presence of the slaves and the colonised people, class is in some ways more present, but more in the background.
LM: It was important for me to recreate the past faithfully. I wanted to show that this world was actually much more diverse than we’ve been told, and to counter this idea that the Indigenous people and Black slaves were completely submissive. It wasn’t true.
To do this was to challenge history as we have been taught it — from the perspective of the white man.'To do this was to challenge history as we have been taught it—from the perspective of the white man.'Click To Tweet
Even though the main character is a white man and the film resembles other historical movies in that way, it seemed important to me that this would only be one of many layers to the movie and to this reality. And behind this layer, there wouldn’t actually be so much submission. This conception of the past, with people being constantly submissive, is not such a solid construction.'I wanted to create a world that would be a bit contradictory with the idea we have of the past.'Click To Tweet
I wanted to have those layers — to create a world that would be a bit contradictory with the idea we have of the past.
7R: This film is about a man; your other films were always about women. How did you approach making a film about a rather unlikeable man? The film does start with him hitting a woman in the face…
LM: Actually, I find this to be one of my most feminine films, because what we see is this very male identity being crushed. The things that he wants to happen never do. He is only liberated once he abandons these desires and this violent masculinity.'I find this one of my most feminine films, because we see this very male identity being crushed.'Click To Tweet
7R: In The Headless Woman, there are a few moments that are not exactly funny, but have the potential to be — and there’s a sense of absurdity. Why did you decide to focus on this comedic aspect in Zama?
LM: That was a very conscious decision. We have this problem in Argentinian historical cinema: the films tend to be very solemn and serious. All the characters are heroes; all the problems are tremendous. The entire dialogue is solemn.'We have this problem in Argentinian historical cinema: the films tend to be very solemn and serious'Click To Tweet
7R: Colonialism is a very serious issue, but instead of damning it with seriousness, you show how absurd it is.
LM: You only address colonialism with solemn seriousness if you don’t experience it daily. But in Argentina, in Latin America, we still live under colonialism.'You only address colonialism with solemn seriousness if you don’t experience it daily.' - MartelClick To Tweet
It isn’t a thing of the past. It isn’t something we have to talk or think about; it is an everyday thing. I am looking forward to seeing the reaction to the film in Latin America, to see if it reflects how colonialism is still persistent there today.
This review was originally published on September 23, 2017.
We have written about a few other films which, like Zama, challenge history as it has been taught. Brett Pardy wrote a great piece for us about The Wound, explaining that homophobia is not a traditional aspect of the Xhosa tribe in South Africa, but is in fact inherited from colonialism and thus a relatively recent development. Effie Gray, written by Emma Thompson, offers a feminist take on the story of the unloved wife in Victorian England, undermining the assumptions we have about women of that period. In showing the psychological toll of war on soldiers, their fears, and the way each had to play a part to reassure his fellow men, Journey’s End questions romantic and patriotic ideas about WWI trench warfare. Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Look of Silence challenges history by revisiting it, as a man meets with the very people who killed his family years ago, seeking their apology — and thus a different ending to his story.