Born in Argentina in 1966, Lucrecia Martel had a typically Catholic upbringing for the region, albeit such that she only enrolled in an ultra-Catholic school in order to study ancient languages. There she excelled in science and had intended further study in zoology, and even dabbled in farming, but was drawn into more practical studies in consideration of making a living, and bit by bit was drawn into filmmaking, in which occupation she was largely self-taught. She made short films and some documentaries for television during the 1990s, and has made only four feature films for cinema, but already in that time she has proven a keen eye for framing, and a laconic way of drawing out a story. Indeed, after bursting onto the international scene with La Ciénaga in 2001, she has been a model for successive Latin American women directors, if not for an entire strand of arthouse film production. Her films are not immediately accessible, and perhaps that explains her slow output (and the dizzying array of producers and sources of money her films sometimes list), but she also crafts them all very deliberately so perhaps the waits are worthwhile.
La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004) [Argentina/Italy/Spain/Netherlands, certificate 15]
Martel’s second feature film works heavily in close-ups, and elides movement between different settings — the film unfolds in a series of interior spaces, which all feel equally claustrophic from the framing, but are in fact different locations (while much of the film is set in a hotel, other scenes are in homes or at church). The plot is about a young woman Amalia (María Alche), living with her mother Helena (Mercedes Morán) at a hotel — indeed, she has apparently been brought up in hotels — who finds herself strangely drawn to a middle-aged doctor (Carlos Belloso) who has been creeping on her while attending a conference. There’s a sense in which her fervid teenage religious instinct is working adversely on her, but her oddness, the way she holds herself inside herself, reminds me a little of Bresson’s Mouchette (even if the film doesn’t go the same direction as that one). There are even recurring moments of humour — the young woman teaching at church who seems constantly to avoid discussions her students want to have, or the young woman who appears around the hotel spraying something (fly spray, I think, given their constant buzzing on the artfully-composed soundtrack). Still, Amalia is a character who holds things slightly away from her, so it’s difficult to connect, meaning the film has a reserved, enigmatic quality, which feeds back, I suppose, into the central, devoutly Catholic conceit.
Director/Writer Lucrecia Martel; Cinematographer Félix Monti; Starring María Alche, Julieta Zylberberg, Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at ICA, London, Wednesday 23 May 2018.
La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman, 2008) [Argentina/Italy/Spain/France, certificate 12] [Sight & Sound 2022]
This third film by Lucrecia Martel certainly is divisive, and yes I suppose at a certain level nothing much happens, but it’s an incredibly carefully controlled and artfully-designed lack of action. It follows María Onetto playing a woman called Verónica (or Vero for short, already hinting that the “truth” is a relevant issue) who has a car accident — hits something or someone, and knocks her head — and then spends the rest of the film seeming somehow shaken, but not in an overt way. At a formal level, we as viewers learn about her as she moves, dazed, through life: her name, her job, her family and children, and what her relationships are, and the way her class privilege operates with respect to the people around her — so her seeming confusion is our own. Also, technically, Martel’s direction repeatedly pushes Vero (whom the film focuses on almost entirely) to the edge of the frame, with other actors in the background, out of focus or cut off by the framing. Doors, windows and other obstacles constantly block our view, making it unclear what is happening, but everywhere there are hints at some deeper trauma — which may be what we saw, which may be imagined, which may in fact, after all, be allegorical. It’s all beautifully done, and hints at such mystery that I am only disappointed at the thought the film may not contain it all, but further viewings will be required for that.
Director/Writer Lucrecia Martel; Cinematographer Bárbara Álvarez; Starring María Onetto; Length 87 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Friday 1 December 2017.
Zama (2017) [Argentina/Brazil/Dominican Republic/Mexico/Portugal/Spain/France/Netherlands/Lebanon/Switzerland/USA, certificate 15] [Sight & Sound 2022]
Before the film starts there’s a full minute of splashes and logos of producing partners, and just looking at the list of production countries is boggling: it was clearly an enormous amount of work to pull together the funding for this period drama. Even with Martel’s solid track record, clearly this kind of historical recreation is an expensive undertaking. Therefore, I only wish I could say it is a masterpiece. I can say it doesn’t have the colonialist high-handedness of, say, Werner Herzog’s work like Fitzcarraldo (though that may not be entirely fair), but it’s quite a difficult film to watch. Part of what makes it challenging is I think the way it’s framed: Daniel Giménez Cacho as Zama is front and centre in most of the film’s shots, as people and animals move around him constantly, while we often only have his eyes to watch as he takes it in. Already this single-minded focus feels like a trait of Martel’s cinema, which likes to occlude far more than reveal. This can make it difficult to pick out what’s actually happening. That said, I’ll have a go.
Zama is an officer representing the Spanish Empire (albeit one born in South America), and has a range of clothes and wigs to denote his status. Around him, the native-born population lives largely in poverty, waiting on their European masters, and Martel doesn’t really dwell on this or investigate any brutality; it’s just sort of presented as a fact of life. That said, Zama is clearly not a glorious or noble man — he has his vanities and his pathetic attempts at control like all the vainglorious men around him, and eventually that provides some of his undoing. Throughout the film, Zama is chiefly desperate to get a transfer somewhere else, and spends decades not getting it, as gradually he is bumped down the colonial foodchain.
The film is primarily excellent in the way it follows his decline and fall, and watches him as he unravels, progressively losing hope at any change. There’s a sort of bleak humour at times — and Martel’s sound design is very carefully considered, and sometimes adds to that feeling — but it definitely challenges the viewer to stay awake. At the London Film Festival screening I attended, Martel joked about dreamlike state (if not actual sleep) viewers might find themselves in, but perhaps we should instead call the film oneiric.
Director/Writer Lucrecia Martel (based on the novel by Antonio di Benedetto); Cinematographer Rui Poças; Starring Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele; Length 115 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Sunday 15 October 2017 (and most recently at Curzon Soho, London, Monday 28 May 2018).