Lucrecia Martel's Zama opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday, April 13, and the screening represents the triumphant return of one of the world's very best filmmakers after a nine-year absence. Martel, long a master of image and sound, takes a particularly provocative and elliptical approach to the story of the title character, an 18th-century Spanish bureaucrat stationed in a small town in Argentina who is awaiting a transfer to Buenos Aires that never materializes. Zama's frustration eventually leads him to spearhead a manhunt for a notorious bandit who may or may not exist. In what will almost certainly prove to be one of the highlights of the filmgoing year, the charismatic Martel will appear in person for Q&A sessions following screenings of Zama at the Siskel on Sunday, May 15 and Monday, May 16. We recently spoke to Martel about Zama in advance of her local appearance.
Your previous films all deal with race and class divisions. Did you see making a film about 18th-century colonialism as a chance to examine the roots of social problems that still persist in Argentina today?
Some of what you mentioned is inevitably in the background. I believe, however, that the roots of class issues and racial divisions are a direct consequence of the Europeans' arrival. It was already there in the incursions in Africa and the wars against the Arab world. This film rather dives into the trap that is built, voluntarily and involuntarily, around the identity of a person.
In most films about colonialism, the protagonist is a heroic or at least a tragically flawed but still immensely important figure. Zama is fascinating in how it centers on a frustrated, low-level bureaucrat, a man of no real importance. Was this aspect of Zama’s character an appeal factor for you in adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s novel?
Yes, that’s correct. In my previous films I also focus on characters a little displaced from history’s eye. History, because of the sources on which it is based, can rarely follow the trail of a character who hasn’t had a relevant function: a queen, a minister. Recently in Barcelona I searched insistently for information about the artisans who worked with Gaudi. I didn’t find anything at all despite the relevance of the work of the blacksmiths, mosaic workers, plasterers and carpenters in their concept. This problem is infinitely greater when it comes to history written to justify a process of robbery and killing. Decentralized and marginal history attract me more.
One similarity between Zama and your 2008 film The Headless Woman is a sense of increasing subjectivity. Both films become more dreamlike as the characters become increasingly psychologically disturbed. What interests you about showing the perceptions of this kind of character?
Probably what attracts me most about cinema is the possibility of reflecting reality in an altered way. I think this is the most interesting mission of making films. Reflect reality with certain distortions that allow us to understand the subjective, arbitrary, and the constructed, in the reality that surrounds us, and we're naturalized as if things couldn't have been otherwise. Perverting perception is a fundamental step for those who have an interest in the political possibilities of cinema.
The sound design in your films is always amazing and Zama is no exception. This is apparent in the opening scene where natural sounds are heightened. Were you trying to convey a sense of how this alien landscape would sound to a foreigner?
What a good question! Sound is the medium in which one submerges the public in order to allow them to transcend the image. Sound always has to transform us into foreigners, if possible into aliens, because it’s very difficult to see, in a culture where vision is domesticated daily and for centuries.
One gets the feeling you “find” your films during shooting. In the scene where Zama’s request for a transfer is denied, for instance, there is the absurd appearance of a llama. How does a moment like this happen? Is it in the script or does it happen organically on set?
It was impossible for me to think of such an extravagance with the budget we were working with. The llama was there. It’s an iconic animal of my native province, and as the city of Lerma is mentioned in that scene, it seemed to me that the llama would contribute, add something. The llamas are very curious animals. Their gaze, as with any other animal, leaves us helpless and perplexed. To add something out of the script that works in a significative way, you have to be sure of what you are doing with your story.
There is more humor in Zama than your other films. The interactions between Zama and Luciano, in particular, struck me as hilarious. Would you ever consider making an official comedy?
I hope that over the years the humor in my films will be better understood, the humor that is in absolutely every scene I’ve shot. For me, my films are comedies. That's why I put those class B movie titles (e.g., The Swamp, The Holy Girl, The Headless Woman), to give a clue. But I haven’t had any luck, and they’ve put me on the shelf of the serious films.
I know you admire David Lynch. What did you think of Twin Peaks: The Return?
The serial format is not quite my thing. I’ve seen only one chapter that a friend showed me. Very horrific and funny, quite his style. I admire David Lynch like every other director, because he is bold and that’s really appreciated. But for me, Paul Thomas Anderson goes further in exploring the lights and shadows of humanity. Sometimes I think that the entertainment industry has put David Lynch in the crazy artist box needed to believe in the freedom of expression.
Find more information about the Chicago premiere of Zama at the Siskel Center website.