“Europe is best remembered by those who were never there,” a Spanish woman, Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), explains early in Zama (2017), the fourth feature from Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel. She’s talking to Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a magistrate for the Spanish Crown, and an americano (of European heritage but born in the New World of the Americas), who waits in hope for a transfer from this isolated, swampy post to a more prestigious position.
As Luciana complains about the stifling heat, Zama romanticises Europe – the elegance of snow and perfumed Russian princesses – a world he’s never seen. Zama is an Argentine who thinks of himself as European. The existential crisis of Martel’s film is rooted in Zama’s desire to be Spanish, and his rejection of the actual contours of his life. As Zama’s story unfolds, he’s increasingly stranded between two worlds – standing on the shoreline, as he does in the film’s opening, with nowhere to go.
But there’s something else at play in this scene too. As Zama and Luciana talk, her black servants, slaves, are on the periphery. A man stands against the wall, methodically operating a fan. A woman, Malemba (Mariana Nunes), tends to the refreshments. Martel’s composition is precise – focused on the seated guests, the heads of the black bodies are severed from the frame. This invisibility has a purpose, creating a dialectical tension that resonates with Zama’s negation of his identity as an americano. For Zama to disavow his geographical ancestry means separating from South America’s subjugated population and its indigenous people too. It’s the expression of a power relation; a way of saying, "I am not like them".
Based on Antonio Di Benedetto’s acclaimed 1956 novel, Zama is a hallucinatory trek into the heart of colonial darkness. Like each of Martel’s films, Zama is sensual, elusive, and elliptical; less interested in realism than it is with incongruity, it builds narrative through sound as much as images, becoming brighter and lusher the deeper into that dark heart it travels. Zama extends Martel’s concern with the complex, contradictory nature of Argentine identity, here looking back to the late 18th-century to understand today. As she did in the contemporary-set Salta Trilogy – La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004), and The Headless Woman (2008) – Martel constructs a subtle, yet powerful condemnation of the continuing legacy of white middle and upper class indifference to Argentina’s indigenous people.
Martel is a key figure in the New Argentine Cinema, which came to prominence in the mid-1990s; a loose grouping of filmmakers that includes Lisandro Alonso. Working independently, these filmmakers have expanded the mainstream vision of Argentine identity forged on screen; an image shaped at the exclusion of certain stories and faces, including those of young people, religious minorities, and other ethnic and indigenous communities. Martel, specifically, has focused on Salta – the name of a province and its main city – located in northwest Argentina where she was born and raised. All of her films, except Zama, are set in and around Salta, or in the case of La Ciénaga in a fictionalised version of it. And although Zama is set in an unspecified South American province (it’s Paraguay in the novel), Martel changed the city that Zama hopes to be transferred to from Buenos Aires to Lerma (in the province of Salta).
In Salta, Martel grew up among Argentina’s conservative bourgeoisie, and her films concentrate on this social class, to expose their hypocrisies and how they view themselves as separate from the indigenous people who live among them. Martel has reflected, “In the north we have this clear idea that ‘they’ are the servants, we are the owners of the land, the owners of rights, the owners of everything.”
Politics is definitely at the core of Martel’s sensory cinema, but a political narrative emerges primarily through her observation of social relations – how characters behave and interact with each other. In La Ciénaga, Martel’s critique begins with the film’s hypnotic opening sequence. Tightly framed shots establish a sinking, swamp-like world so soggy you can almost smell it rotting. The sound of birds, cicadas, and thunder rolling in the nearby mountains; a close-up on a white woman’s hand pouring wine into a glass, the clang of ice cubes, a man preening himself. There’s an ominous lethargy and drunkenness as the camera pulls out to take in more of the scene, revealing middle-aged, middle-class Argentinians, idling by the filthy pool in their country house.
Unproductive and entitled: this is how Martel pictures matriarch Mecha (Graciela Borges) and her family. They spend much of the film horizontal: lying on beds or by the pool. Their sloth and self-pity is contrasted with the quiet activity of their indigenous servants, especially the maid, Isabel (Andrea López). It’s clear that this decaying household would cease functioning altogether without Isabel’s help, but Mecha spends most of her time criticising the maid’s work and accusing her of stealing towels. Mecha also refers to her youngest daughter, Momi (Sofia Bertolotto), as a “dirty savage” because she “spends all day with the maid.” While the indigenous servants live in close proximity to the family, they are repeatedly reminded that they are different and don’t belong.
In The Holy Girl, indigenous characters live in the background, as Martel focuses on Amalia (Maria Alche), a sixteen-year-old girl who feels a powerful religious calling to save a man who has sinned against her. Amalia lives in a rundown Salta hotel owned by her mother, Helena (Mercede Morán), where doctors have assembled for a conference. Martel’s racial and class commentary is subtle but sharp within this enclosed space. Kitchen and cleaning staff are mostly indigenous and silent. So are the “rep girls” sent to assist at the conference and repeatedly subjected to sexual advances from the white male doctors. Martel presents these scenarios without comment, allowing them to resonate inside the rest of the action. But most interesting is her inclusion of an indigenous maid, seen repeatedly circling the hotel with a can of air freshener, spraying it as if she’s disinfecting the space against possible cross-contamination between races and classes.
Martel’s approach in The Headless Woman is even more lacerating. Her third film unravels the consequences of a car accident involving an upper-middle class woman, Verónica (Maria Onetto). Driving home after an afternoon of leisure, she’s distracted by her mobile phone and hits something on an empty stretch of road. Was it a dog, as she initially believes, or something else as her erratic mental state increasingly suggests? Martel widens the divide between white and indigenous Argentines even further. A friend’s reassuring words to Verónica that, “Nothing happened that weekend,” highlights the troubling ease with which the ruling class is able to obliterate what they find too difficult or ugly to think about.
Martel is a marvel at constructing oppressive spaces that manifest the psychological states of her characters. This is why Zama – her first literary adaptation, her first period film, and her first film with a male protagonist – is a perfect fit for her already firm cinematic concerns. Like Martel’s female protagonists, Zama lives in a state of discomfort of his own making because he has failed to accept and adapt to his surrounds. He won’t face the truth. Zama comes to resemble the “long-suffering fish” in the story a slave tells him, who is “so attached to the element that repels them” that it’s incapable of going anywhere. It’s this state of limbo that connects Zama to Martel’s Salta Trilogy, and to her vision of an Argentine identity thwarted by its refusal to swim into the muck of its colonial past.