At first glance, Zama seems like a real departure for Lucrecia Martel. After three films (La ciénaga, The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman) that focused on the anxieties of the middle-class in her home town of Salta, Zama is a period film set in 18th century Paraguay, and it marks the first time she has adapted a novel for the screen. The film itself, however, is instantly recognisable as another work of peerless craftsmanship and incisive intelligence from one of the most exciting directors in contemporary cinema. The story of a disillusioned Corregidor pining for home, Zama is a film about colonialism, frustration, bureaucracy and a man gradually falling apart. I met Lucrecia Martel during last year’s London Film Festival to discuss it.
When you read Zama, when did you know you wanted to adapt it? Was there one particular image or idea that jumped out at you?
It's a mixture of things, but the first thing that affects me is dialogue, the oral parts of the story. When you read a book there's a sound to it. We tend to think of films and books as very different, because with a book you have letters on pages and with film you have the image, but they both have a sound. Literature has a sound and a rhythm. What is that sound? What is the sound that we have in our head as we read? When we read about horses or birds, we don't just imagine how they are or what they look like, we also imagine the sound that they create. I think when we talk about adapting a book to film, we underestimate that aspect.
So the sound something that you are thinking about right from the start, rather than something you develop in post?
No, it's impossible for me to do it in post. In the process of writing, I make those decisions about sound. For example, the Shepard tone was something that I knew I was going to use. All those offscreen sounds during dialogues that focus on Zama were decisions that I was making at the writing stage. This probably comes from sound films, this idea that firstly the image is produced and then the sound is produced to accompany it. To give you a concrete example from Zama; the birds, the toads, the insects in the book, we knew from the outset that we wanted them to sound slightly electronic. They are natural, but they seem electronic. Those insects existed in the 18th century so that means the 18th century had this electronic quality to it. These decisions can seem very arbitrary but they are decisions that I take very early on, and during the filming process we were very attentive to make sure that we recorded the sounds of all the insects and toads. That strong narrative that I have, which is based around sound and the dialogue I've had with Guido Berenblum, the sound designer, over the years makes that understanding very simple and very quick.
What about the way you approach the look of your films? You’ve worked with a different director of photography on every film. What are you looking for in that relationship?
The image for me is something that I see as a different experiment in every film, so I see changing the director of photography as a reasonable move from film to film. Guido and I have a lot of meetings throughout the process of making the film, and these meetings are always very enjoyable because we discuss things that require us to make requests to the art team; for example, we have to think about the sound of wood, the sound of sand. There is a detail in all period dramas in Latin America, that leather boots will have a heel that's a hard leather, almost like wood. So if I was to put those characters in that environment with those boots, first of all it would be absurd, and secondly it would give them an impact, a resonance to their footsteps that wasn't really appropriate, because they're all such fragile people. There are many of these little decisions. For example, in The Holy Girl – I just remembered this now because in the Screen Talk they showed a clip from it – I needed her to see the doctor but for the doctor to not be able see her well, but still be heard. So I chose to put her in this situation where she would be making this noise - pling, pling, pling - and the doctor would be hearing this noise and it's a very threatening, tense note. That's a small decision that works more effectively than the visuals. With the visuals you can create a space but the sound is so much more effective at creating tension, because it comes from everywhere.
Although the film has that sense of tension, I was also struck by its sense of humour. Was that something you brought to the adaptation?
In some aspects, yeah. The book has a very chilling and dark sense of humour, and I accentuated that in the film, because I thought it was important for the film to not be solemn. These sort of films always tend to be very solemn. There is an Italian film from the 1960s called L'armata Brancaleone by Mario Monicelli, and I think that is like a relative of Zama. This film has a lot of relatives, and this is something I discovered after writing the script of Zama, an Italian producer would say something like "Oh, it reminds me of this film." The Saragossa Manuscript is another one.
How did you work with Daniel Giménez Cacho? I loved the way he charts the character’s physical, emotional and spiritual decline across the course of the movie.
Daniel was very easy indeed, because he took the decision with this film to immerse himself fully into the character. I think it's not something he has done previously. We began by filming the end of the film, because we needed him to be thinner and have the beard, so his process had to go from the end, which was very interesting. This was the director of production's idea because we realised the work would become gradually easier as we went on, so it was a good way to manage our efforts, to start with the hardest things. This is another thing that was very interesting, because by starting at the end – which is the only time we see Vicuña Porto – that allowed us to have an image of Vicuña Porto, which we needed.
Yes, I am fascinated by the idea of Vicuña Porto. His absence seems to make him a greater figure than he could possibly be if he was present.
I think Vicuña Porto is like the enemy we all need, the scapegoat. It's more like a social construction of the enemy. It's an enemy who has already been terminated but continues to exist. I don't know if you get the same thing here, but in Latin America there has been a very strong discourse on this idea in relation to crime. With crime – and the same thing happens with terrorism – a crime is never seen as the consequence of something, even though it's the consequence of a social system that generates this insecurity and creates these enemies. Often in Argentina, when there are 15 year-olds or 20 year-olds committing a robbery, it's immediately deemed that they're a nasty person; they're lazy; it's in their nature; they don't want to work. What we don't do is stop and think about why that person was prepared to risk so much for so little. What are they lacking? Robbery is never understood or seen as somebody taking a huge risk with their life, it's always an attack on private property. What is it that pushes that person to take that risk? It's an obvious question that society chooses to overlook. There is an Argentine director called César González who came from one of the poorest suburbs of Buenos Aires, and he said something that was very difficult for society to understand, that when he was fifteen he didn't even have enough money to buy a pair of shoes, so he committed a robbery in order to be able to buy himself some shoes. There was no reason for him to be in that situation at fifteen years of age, there is no justification for it. Vicuña Porto is the enemy we need to be able to justify the inequalities and injustices that exist.
Finally, are you working on another project now? I hope we won’t have to wait another decade to see your next film.
I'm finishing a documentary, which is like an essay on photography. It's about an indigenous leader named Javier Chocobar, who was killed in 2009, and his story reveals a particular link between image and power.
Zama will be released in UK cinemas on May 25th