Sixteen years ago, Pedro Almódovar saw Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s first narrative feature “La Ciénaga,” the story of teenagers in a bourgeois family driven to madness by their boredom. Almódovar immediately called his brother Agustin, with whom he runs a production company. “We absolutely had to contact the director to be part of her next movie,” Almódovar said by email. “It was an epiphany. When you discover an auteur so original, mature and elusive as Lucrecia Martel, you feel as if you’re witnessing a miracle.”
In fact, there are many miraculous aspects to Martel’s career: She developed an aesthetic out of languid poetry, digging into the contradictions of modern Argentine identity with a near-experimental focus on characters who feel out of sync with their surroundings. She became an internationally revered filmmaker with only a few features to her name, and clung to that identity for nine long years, in between her 2008 feature “The Headless Woman” and this year’s “Zama.” Then there’s the not-so-insignificant part where she almost died before she could finish her latest project, and emerged on the other side with her best movie, more confident than ever.
In “Zama,” Martel loosely adapts the 1956 Argentine novel by Antonio di Benedetto about the wandering experiences of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenéz), an insignificant employee of the Spanish empire. He’s stuck in Paraguay in the late 18th century, and desperate to get out. While eager to serve the crown, he’s grown anxious in the grimy beach settlement where he’s stationed with needy locals and indifferent authorities. When the governor tells Zama his request for transfer has been denied, a llama lazily drifts into the frame, as if to put the desperate man in his place among the animals. Eventually, Zama roams the countryside, a lawless terrain overrun by disease and carefree marauders, trapped by the colonialist forces that brought him there. Dressed in the tarnished fabrics of Spain’s upper classes, a useless sword dangling at his side, he becomes an astonishing figure of society in stasis, at war with itself.
The film wowed audiences at festivals in Venice, Toronto and New York. “Zama” will receive a modest opening in the U.S. by Strand Releasing in 2018, but it found a welcoming audience at in Argentina. The country’s film academy selected it as Argentina’s Oscar submission for the foreign-language category, and while it faces steep competition for the short list, the movie’s lush, haunting atmosphere captivates anyone willing to submit to its spell.
It’s the 50-year-old Martel’s most audacious vision to date — and her grandest scale. Produced for $3.5 million, more than twice the amount of “The Headless Woman,” this mostly outdoor period piece required an extensive international co-financing process that yielded close to 30 producers credited on the production, including the Almódovars, Gael García Bernal, and Danny Glover, whose Louverture Films supports a range of international productions.
“When we talk about colonialism, there’s always someone there colonizing, all the good they do in recovering and saving the natives,” Glover told me. “This was quite unusual, the impact of the position on the functionary. That’s what Zama is in the system. He’s surviving with this symbolic image that he has power, but he’s as much a victim of the system, because he has no value to them, he’s expendable. He becomes a pawn in the system.”
Martel also benefitted from the fact that her producers simply wanted her to make another movie, and it became a global effort to push the exacting filmmaker to the finish line. “All these producers fought for the film, for the concept of the narrative,” she said. “They didn’t give any advice. Their main goal was for the film to be made. They aren’t trying to make the film as a product to be sold.”
For Joslyn Barnes, who runs with Louverture with Glover, “It was like a family of cinema came together to make this film. Everyone was very collaborative in spirit. She had a really clear idea of what she wanted.”
Martel explained that she designed her film in response to Argentine’s usual canonization of history. “Usually, the past has a kind of solemn, virtuous quality for us,” she said. “Here, the past is closer to us, less altruistic. We have treated indigenous communities with a heavy burden, and devalue the vision of the reality.”
In “Zama,” natives lurk in the background but often overtake the frame, as if reminding Zama that his vain desire for authority can’t fully overtake their lives. “There’s a spark that comes from seeing the indigenous world represented, less destroyed or conquered than it’s usually portrayed,” she said, noting that the movie has been better received than her earlier works. “Even though it’s a hard film,” she said, “it reacquaints us with the continent.”
Martel struggled to complete a series of projects after “The Headless Woman,” including an ambitious sci-fi project that dragged for several years before she moved on. Taking some time off, she read Di Benedetto’s novel while traveling on a river represented in the story and saw its potential to bring back a forgotten past.
Barnes was struck by the specificity of Martel’s plan for the project, which downplayed historical reference points in favor of a dreamlike riff. “What interested me was this idea of making the film that was historical in the context and setting, but also so very modern and contemporary in its concerns,” she said. “She showed us drawings and photographs. She clearly had been inhabiting this space. It was so clear that it was in her blood to make this film.”
Martel’s movies have always been about waking up audience’s senses to the world around them, revevaluating it from the inside out. In “The Headless Woman,” the protagonist suffers from a concussion early on, and the movie lingers in her slippery relationship to reality; with “Zama,” the essence stems from the character’s disconnect between his surroundings and his values.
For Almodóvar, the movie “is like a delicate jewel,” he said. “It’s been conceived with its back facing the movies that are being made nowadays, the general taste of the audience. I felt the moral obligation to support her.” He was enamored of the period details, with the elegance of the Spanish crown at odds with the physical discomfort of the region. “You can feel the heat, the insects, the taste of the liquors, the meanness of bureaucracy,” he said. “It’s a smart, atrocious, Kafkaesque tale that delves into the cultures Lucrecia and I belong to… It’s an uneasy film, in the best of senses.”
After completing the first cut of “Zama” last year, Martel faced the biggest hurdle of her life: a cancer diagnosis (she declined to specify which kind). Bedridden and near death more than once, she began to question whether she would finish the project. “When something like this happens and your life is at risk, you think there’s no way for me to continue to do what I want to do,” she said. “But I was happy with what I’d done, and that gave me a reason not to be afraid.” She thought about uploading the raw materials online so anyone could edit their own version of the movie. Then she started to get better from treatment — she has been in remission for over a year — and saw aspects of her experience in the plot. “Zama gets sick, but he keeps going on,” she said. “I think this was very valuable for me.”
When post-production came to a halt, “it was scary for everybody,” Barnes said, “but during all this time, she had been away from the edit, and she was still thinking about the film. When she came back to the edit, she felt like she had cracked the puzzle of the edit, which has so much to do with time.”
The end result is a slow immersion into Zama’s subjectivity, one that no single viewing can possibly reward. Like all of Martel’s work, it’s a puzzle engineered to baffle and mystify viewers while getting under their skin. “I wish it wasn’t so rough for the audience, but there are some ways that can be beneficial,” Martel said. “Anything that causes you move you out of predictability is not comfortable. It’s meant to be disturbing.”
Still, she’s keen on opening up her sensibilities to wider audiences. “My wish in life is to make films where people don’t have to suffer the time or the slowness, to find more pleasurable ways,” she said. “Maybe for my next film.”