The Man With No Hands: Lucrecia Martel and "Zama"

An interview with the Argentinian director about her first film in nearly ten years, an adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto's 1956 novel.
Darren Hughes, Daniel Kasman

Lucrecia Martel. Photo by Darren Hughes.

Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a man out of time. Trapped in Argentina, the land of his birth, and serving at the whims of a foreign crown, he embodies the role of colonizer as a middle-aged, corporate functionary—bored, horny, witless, and incompetent. He waits and waits for a promised transfer to reunite with his wife and child, and then waits some more. When he finally does take action, volunteering to join an expedition to find and kill the notorious bandit Vicuña Porto, this adventure too is folly that ends only in further humiliation.

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama resolves few of the episodes she selected to adapt from Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name. Instead, she ensnares viewers in a similarly unnerving stasis. Characters enter Zama’s life—three lovely sisters, a visiting merchant called “The Oriental,” the local noblewoman Luciana (Lola Dueñas)—and then vanish again. Throughout, Martel keeps her camera fixed on Cacho’s endlessly fascinating expression, which articulates Zama’s growing frustration, exhaustion and self-hatred. “All the close-ups of Zama with all those surrounding voices created that idea of his interior monologue,” Martel told us. It’s the maddening voice of our demented world.

This conversation between Martel, Daniel Kasman, and Darren Hughes took place on September 13, 2017, soon after the North American premiere of Zama at the Toronto International Film Festival. Special thanks to TIFF programmer Diana Sánchez for translating.

NOTEBOOK: Last time we spoke, I asked you if The Headless Woman was a horror film. I’m wondering if you see Zama as a comedy, as a comic tale?

LUCRECIA MARTEL: For me, it’s more about absurdity. There may be a little bit of dark humor, but it’s not about solemnity. It’s not a solemn vision of the past.

NOTEBOOK: I feel like part of the levity of the film is the presence of animals everywhere.

MARTEL: [laughs] That was not expensive, because we were shooting in a place where it was to easy to contract animals, to get animals.

NOTEBOOK: But difficult to direct—to have the llama do what you want?

MARTEL: That was a miracle, that shot with the llama was a miracle.

NOTEBOOK: Because I’m an English speaker, every word of dialog gets reduced to a subtitle. Is there any context that I’m missing, in varieties of accents, varieties of voices, in languages?

MARTEL: That loss, when you’re writing a script you know that some things are going to get lost in translation. Those particularities of the Spanish language we knew were going to be an “only child” for the Spanish-speaking community. I knew this from when I was very young, that when you’re making a period piece you have to re-invent, because there’s no register. Everything that you have written doesn’t help you imagine what the oral language would have been like, because there’s nothing recorded. So I didn’t use the typical Iberian Peninsula Spanish. For the language, what I used was a kind of neutral Spanish that was invented in Mexico for soap operas, so that they could sell soap operas. So it’s an unaccredited Spanish, it’s not a cultured Spanish. On that base I added a lot of linguistic particularities from different areas of Argentina. For every actor that had a speaking part, I would send them a long email explaining the language of the film. And after that we would rehearse.

This is problematic for us because in Argentina, the representation of the past is very solemn and very heroic, very macho and masculine. It was really important for me to get away from those prejudices, and find a language that was almost humorous, and more close to the general population, because there was a lot of turns-of-phrase in the novel that I really, really liked. I had to shift them so that they wouldn’t be so different from ordinary everyday speech. There are also the indigenous languages that are in the film: Qom, pilagá and mbyá guaraní.

NOTEBOOK: Where was this shot? Was it in Salta, like your previous films?

MARTEL: No, it’s an extensive region in the northeast of Argentina. They’re plains. They’re large plains, part Bolivia, part Argentina, part Paraguay. It’s a very hostile environment that hasn’t often been filmed in cinema. Very few films have been shot there, and it’s a place of very big rivers.

NOTEBOOK: Speaking of an Argentine history often seen as heroic and masculine, I know Zama’s story comes from Antonio di Benedetto’s book, but why did you want to tell the story of a man and a colonizer from this era of history?

MARTEL: There’s a subtext in the film that really talks about how women are much more prepared for failure. That’s something that men, at least in Latin America, are not so prepared to face. This idea of “somebody that’s waiting” is somebody that is affirmed in identity. They have a strong fixed identity and a self-awareness. In masculine culture, the idea of failure is just a lot more tough and difficult. While for women, we are in the margins of power, and the idea of failure is just something that we’re much more used to. So, in feminine culture, failure also is a means to change your path, an opportunity to change your path, and not get stuck in that situation.

That’s a subtext through the film, it’s a reflection on that, but it’s also something that happens to both genders, it’s not only men that experience it. And I think this was true for Di Benedetto. I think that this reflection is not just my idea, because the image [at the film’s end] of a man without hands is an image of a man who can’t grab onto anything. When we were developing the script, this was an idea. You have to surrender. Everybody that lives near the Paraná River knows that when you fall into it you have to let yourself be taken along in the river, because if you fight against it or if you try to swim, you’ll drown. And that concept, for the whole film, was a guide for all of us, for the actors, for everyone in the film.

NOTEBOOK: In an interview for The Headless Woman you said that you imagined the camera as being like a 10-year-old child who is just sitting in the room, being curious. Did you stick to that same approach? I love that metaphor.

MARTEL: [laughs] So in this film it’s a child who… I’m not sure if he’s grown up or if he’s sick, and he’s a little bit more still.

NOTEBOOK: How does that work on set? For example, I love the scene with the three sisters, who are walking around Zama in his bedroom picking up coins. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in a long time.

MARTEL: The sound in that scene was like a music box. I did a lot of staging that was very similar, in order to generate that feeling of déjà vu in that scene. There’s a lot of similar shots throughout the film that I did on purpose because it generates a sort-of paralysed time.

NOTEBOOK: The novel is very episodic. As you were reading it, how were you deciding which episodes to include, which stories to resolve?

MARTEL: When I was making the choices...there were so many it’s honestly really difficult to remember now because there was an infinite amount of choices. But I did twist some of the ideas. Also, as the novel’s a monologue, a soliloquy, when I was shooting it I didn’t want to just have one voiceover of Zama, I wanted to have a lot of voices that appear to be the voice of Zama. All the close-ups of Zama with all those surrounding voices created that idea of his interior monologue.

NOTEBOOK: I was curious about the film’s decision to have such subjective sound in key moments, this ringing that gets louder, and that singular moment where we suddenly enter a secondary character’s head, hearing his inner voice talking about the death of a notorious bandit. It’s already quite a subjectively told story, why did you want to take the film’s subjectivity further?

MARTEL: That was an important way to slow time. I didn’t have a lot of material at that point and I wanted to create this idea of slowing down time. So it was a choice for rhythm, and with that sound we got to that change of rhythm. From the very beginning, since the first cut, the duration of the film was always the same: 2 hours. So what was the most challenging to adjust, to really get right, that I took 20 weeks to do, was getting the rhythm I was looking for.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve said in the past that when you start a film, you don’t start with an image but you start with a sound. What was the sound that sparked Zama?

MARTEL: The first one was the Shepard tone. It’s a description of an auditory illusion that someone described in the 70s, that is a series of descending scales.

NOTEBOOK: It sounds like it’s always going down, but then it just keeps going…

MARTEL: [mimics the Shepard tone] It’s continually falling. There’s a lot of insects that actually do that naturally. And frogs. So that was a decision that we made with Guido Berenblum, the sound designer. For the soundtrack we got all the sounds of insects, birds, frogs, that sounded almost electronic. And that’s interesting because these are natural sounds, sounds that occur in nature, but they give the film a kind of modern sound. It’s interesting, because it helps us reflect and think that those people living in the 18th century were surrounded by electronic sounds.

NOTEBOOK: Since we’re talking about sound and music, I have to ask about this modern tropical soundtrack…

MARTEL: So a lot of those sounds I found on YouTube, because I’m addicted to YouTube, as I think we all are. Don’t go on it… [laughs]

NOTEBOOK: You’ll never leave!

MARTEL: [laughs] At first, I wanted to use Paraguayan music that became popular in Paraguay in the 1950s called Guarania, and while I was looking for Guarania, I found the Tabajaras Indians, who have these incredible record covers. These were indigenous Brazilians, from the north of Brazil, they played guitar, and their dream was to triumph in Hollywood. They played a lot in Europe, in hotels and they also worked a lot in the United States.

In the ‘50s there was a real tropical idea of what Latin American was, a tropical identity that the rest of the world had, and Rio was the image of all of Latin America. I like this idea of this Latin American pretentiousness, of wanting to triumph in Hollywood. And I like the resonance of the guitar, I thought it was perfect for the film. There’s also that element of humor, because I think there is humor when they play, but it’s also very funny that they wanted to be Hollywood stars, they had Hollywood ambitions. A lot of the aesthetic decisions in the film were taken to distance ourselves from this painterly idea of the past. That’s why I’m very happy it’s my first digital film.

NOTEBOOK: That really changes the image texture, with digital the past looks like the present.

MARTEL: I like that about the film, that a lot of the decisions about light and color are taken from ‘60s and ‘70s TV shows.

NOTEBOOK: From Argentina?

MARTEL: Yeah, from ‘70s Argentine shows. A lot of the ideas we had we took from Brazilian TV from the ‘60s.

NOTEBOOK: Did you see this TV as a child?

MARTEL: Yeah, our family got color television in the mid-’70s.

NOTEBOOK: You’ve said in the past that you want to desire your actors, you want to enjoy watching them, you don’t want to be bored watching them. Is it possible to describe what you’re looking for, what is it that attracts you to a face?

MARTEL: That’s actually something vital, it’s not so much being “in love,” but if you’re not fascinated by your actors it’s very difficult to know how to shoot them, how to film them. What’s interesting about that fascination is that it doesn’t have moral barriers, so if the protagonist is an awful person or a really good person, it doesn’t matter, and I think that’s something positive. It’s important because you self-limit yourself and don’t fall into prejudices and judgments, so beauty trumps morality.

It’s a way of controlling myself for that time. What was important to me with the indigenous and African actors was not to put them in gestures of extreme submission that are common in other films about colonization. I thought that would make the oppression seem more obvious. That was a way of reaffirming the oppression, which is something that I didn’t want to do. It would be like filming a rape, to be filming something that’s an awful image but at the same time you could be fulfilling some fantasies that a lot of people have. It was really important not to reaffirm that oppression.

NOTEBOOK: In the scene where a colonizing family is asking for their land rights, and Zama gives them 40 indigenous natives, there’s this amazing portrait of an actress who has no lines of dialogue. What do you say to the actress of such a role?

MARTEL: That poor actress, so that the dog would lick her we had to rub salami on her! [laughs] On her hands, on her face... No, what was important for me to show in that scene was just the frivolous way some decisions are taken. Zama wanted that woman, he was hot for her, and he was ready to give away these 40 Indians. What I wanted to show was the way big historical decisions are often just these…it was just to lower this image of the colonizer, this brute. Because this film talks a lot about power, if you portray someone like that as powerful, then they continue being powerful. That was a crucial point for our Latin American cinema.

NOTEBOOK: The first half of the film is quite sensual, although Zama is ultimately very sexually unfulfilled.

MARTEL: That’s an important point, because it defines Zama’s stay in that colony for the whole time. In the book, there was a rape scene that I did originally have in the script. There were two sexual scenes, but in the end for budget reasons I had to take one out, and I ended up taking the rape scene out because I had no desire to film a rape. The idea of not having any violence in cinema is, of course, crazy too, but right now in Argentina every 16 to 20 hours a woman ends up dead or raped, and I just had no desire to film that. Right now, I don’t have any desire to see a dead or raped woman, or film one. I think that’s something that those of us who make cinema really have to think about, because when you’re filming a rape scene, filming a violent scene, filming a racist scene: sometimes you might be contributing to some sort of fulfillment, even though what you’re really doing is denouncing that. It’s a problem that we have to think about a lot.

NOTEBOOK: How would you characterise Zama’s condition? Some critics are calling it “madness.” Or is it malaise, is it paranoia? How would you describe it?

MARTEL: For me, being part of our culture implies being in a state of craziness. Unless you are actually in a state of insanity, it’s impossible to accept the idea of “work” and the time we lose at work. The things that we’re preoccupied with, the things that we worry about...when you lose someone you care about, that’s the moment when you realize how ridiculous the things that worry us are.

And this formidable state of dementia has allowed us to make death something that’s far away from us, not something close. And it’s the only thing we can absolutely be sure will happen to all of us. It’s possible that one might not fall in love, it’s possible that one might not get married—but it’s impossible that we’re not going to die. And so for me our culture implies a state of dementia, and its most obvious symptom is language. The immense power of language is to sustain that dementia.

NOTEBOOK: Are you saying that we use language to convince ourselves that we’re not demented?

MARTEL: No, on the contrary. [laughs] Language holds up this whole facade. That’s why poetry is almost like a code, like a code that you would find on a safe that could reveal that insanity, the madness.

When I think about my characters, I think about a monster—I find it much more useful than thinking about psychological states. I think about the idea of the monster. Because the monster reveals an unstable naturalness. It’s an unnatural being. Because the idea of the monster is much more applicable to the human being than any other idea. And I‘m using a very classical idea, the idea of “monster” as something that appears as exceptional. It comes from the Latin monstrare “to reveal”—and a divine message is revealed. In Greco-Latin cultures, when an albino child or a Siamese child would be born, they would think that that it brings a divine message to the communities. So that’s why it’s very important to watch Trump, because that hair is definitely announcing some sort of important catastrophe.

NOTEBOOK: Does this relate to the character of Vicuña Porto in Zama, how everyone has a different story, a different picture of him? And when we meet him he’s just a normal guy, he’s committed some sins, no big deal—his legend is somehow constructed through language, through rumor.

MARTEL: Yes. At first, he seems like a kid, but he’s capable of cutting somebody’s hands off.  So he’s both things. A lot of times in Zama what’s important to see is people will announce who they are—“Yes, I am this person,” “Yes, I am that person,” “Yes, I have this function”—and the state of Being is really an accumulation of words, of language, of self-affirmations—but verbal ones, not a state of physical being. When I give film courses, I do 3-hour classes, and what I do is base it all on dialogue, because dialogue is the key to discovering the perception of the film. Not dialogue in the sense of explaining what’s happening in the film, but dialogue in that codified sense, the sense of being a code.

NOTEBOOK: Do you relate to directing differently now, because of this gap that you’ve had since The Headless Woman and transitioning to digital filmmaking?

MARTEL: It was not really important to me to shoot analogue. I don’t have that nostalgia for celluloid and I’m really interested in new technologies. For me, it’s more important to have control over things like the editing, to be able to experiment more, than having nostalgia for this beautiful image. That is not so important for me. For me, right now because sound technology has improved so much, that to me has much more importance. If I have to lose a little bit of image and gain so much in sound, to me it’s a good trade-off.

NOTEBOOK: You haven’t made a film in nearly ten years. Have you yearned to make cinema in this time since The Headless Woman?

MARTEL: I did, I was working on a script from 2008 to mid-2010, a science-fiction comic. That didn’t get filmed. But I’m not such a huge fan of cinema. I like it, but what I’m really passionate about is making plans, and organizing stuff, making plans to shoot things. I have been continually working in that time. Excel sheets I like very much. [laughs] Since I was very young I’ve always been the one making the plans, the schedules, organizing, even when we played cowboys when I was a kid I was the one with the maps.

NOTEBOOK: Do you leave room on the set for freedom? For improvisation in the sense of framing or action, or is it all meticulous and planned?

MARTEL: There’s liberty, but it’s all before. Once we get to the set, everything should be prepared, all the thinking should have happened beforehand. But of course, there’s always things that you don’t account for, like the llama, that just happened. So we put the llama in that room but no one knew what it would do.

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