Argentine Filmmaker Lucrecia Martel Returns After a Long Journey
After just three features, the filmmaker Lucrecia Martel had left her indelible stamp on the rarefied heights of art cinema.
Her 2008 film “The Headless Woman,” about a bourgeois Argentine involved in an apparent hit-and-run, was praised as a “brilliant, maddeningly enigmatic puzzle” by The New York Times. A retrospective of Ms. Martel’s films at the Harvard Film Archive pronounced her “a dominant figure in contemporary world cinema and one of its great stylists” for her psychologically acute and sensually immersive filmmaking. “The Headless Woman” (which followed “La Cienaga” and “The Holy Girl”) received berths at festivals and slots on the top-10 lists of leading critics such as Amy Taubin and J. Hoberman.
Then nearly a decade passed without a new feature from Ms. Martel. It was like a mysterious narrative detour from her elliptical films: a major auteur and eloquent leading light of the New Argentine Cinema seemed simply to drop off the map.
But that all changes on Aug. 31 when Ms. Martel’s long-anticipated “Zama” has its world premiere at the Venice International Film Festival. And to hear the 50-year-old director tell it, the time apart wasn’t a big deal.
“During all the years that I have been working on this film and other useless things, I did not feel a rupture. That’s a perception of the public perhaps,” Ms. Martel said in an interview.
Yes, there was a science-fiction production that failed to launch after more than a year and a half of work; a shoot on “Zama” lasting over two months; a protracted edit on the film, her longest ever; and somewhere in there, she got sick, bad enough to take a break.
But “Zama” has arrived, and with it, an ambitious adaptation of a 1956 Argentine novel by Antonio di Benedetto set at the end of the 18th century in colonial South America. The Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho stars as Don Diego de Zama, a frustrated, possibly delusional functionary of the Spanish Empire who sits stranded in the boondocks, wanting more.
Zama wants recognition by the king, a move to be closer to his wife and children, and sexual satisfaction from the women whom he lusts after. His situation is summed up on the book’s first page: “There we were: Ready to go, and not going.”
For Ms. Martel, however, the story was less a picture of inertia than a meditation on identity, and thus a prime candidate for her subjective form of cinema.
“‘Zama’ is usually said to be a novel about waiting,” the director said, but she sees the character in different terms. Zama, in her view, is a “man trapped in who he thinks he is,” which she called “a condition that we pursue with eagerness in our culture: Know who we are.”
The making of the film came out of a personal journey for Ms. Martel herself. The abandoned work on the science-fiction film was also for an adaptation, “El Eternauta,” a cult comic in Argentina.
Ms. Martel was no stranger to career challenges; she largely taught herself filmmaking in the 1990s when the country’s economic crisis hobbled the state film school she had entered. But the aborted project was a confusing blow.
Seeking a way out of her dismay, she decided to take a trip on the Paraná River.
“I had a wooden boat, completely unsuitable for that adventure,” Ms. Martel said, recalling temperatures of over 40 degrees Celsius and “all kinds of insects, tremendous summer storms, my meager experience as a captain in a fierce river.”
She took along a few books and “many photocopies of 18th-century expeditions on rivers in South America.” One of the books she packed was Di Benedetto’s novel.
“There I read ‘Zama,’” Ms. Martel said, summing up her reaction in a single word: “euphoria.”
The book held that fascination for her throughout the making of the film. She adapted the screenplay herself, undertaking the project with multiple producers (including El Deseo, Pedro and Agustín Almodóvar’s company). The shoot lasted nine weeks in the provinces of Argentina, as she brought the story’s world into being with the help of the Portuguese cinematographer Rui Pocas (who shot films by the auteurs Miguel Gomes and João Pedro Rodrigues), the art director Renata Belo Pinheiro and a dedicated crew.
“The idea was not to aim at historical fidelity or a conventional historical film style,” Mr. Pocas said, but rather to use light in new ways and play with “a misleading sense of linear time and narrative ellipses.”
The book’s sometimes tortuous and archaic language inspired Ms. Martel to experiment with sound and image. By at least one outside account, there was no better person than Ms. Martel to tackle the material.
“She is the perfect director for this film: her senses of time, her regionalism,” the scholar Esther Allen, who translated the acclaimed New York Review of Books Classics edition of “Zama,” wrote in an email. “I worked on ‘Zama’ for a very long while, and throughout was aware that Lucrecia Martel was also adapting it into a film.”
Despite Ms. Martel’s reputation, “Zama” is screening out of competition at Venice. That seems an unusual choice for such a hotly anticipated title, but follows an occasional tendency at Venice and Cannes to keep challenging features out of the more traditional competition spotlight. Alberto Barbera, head of the festival, said it was “better for the film to be out of competition,” perhaps mindful of the divided response to Ms. Martel’s “The Headless Woman” in competition at Cannes in 2008.
Ms. Martel waved away the niceties of festival decisions. For the filmmaker, the prospect of an ending to the film’s journey through its premiere is appealing.
“I was making changes until recently. I hope that process is over, because ‘Zama’ seems to resist being finished.”