Lost in a Reverie: Lucrecia Martel

As the strangeness of its title suggests, Zama, the fourth feature by Argentinian filmmaker Lucretia Martel, is an otherworldly, odd and fantastic beast. It’s a period drama whose loose relationship with history and dreamy tone gives it a sense of being out of time as opposed to located specifically in one. It has all the richness of a film like Embrace of the Serpent (2015) but is less propelled by mission than exasperation – that of its titular character, who is less an explorer of the world he resides in than a petty bureaucrat stationed in it and does everything in his power to escape. This oddball – who wouldn’t look out of place in a Kafka story – is the creation of novelist Antonio Di Benedetto. (The novel was originally published in 1956 and only translated into English in 2000.) But for her adaptation, Martel has made the minor official very much her own, as aloof from the world as the protagonists in her previous three films: La Cienaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008).

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Martel isn’t as well known as she should be. It’s a pity because she is one of the finest filmmakers currently at work. Her films are quiet, beautifully shot and deceptive in their emotional engagement. It would be too easy to define her style as glacial, but the feelings she draws out of her characters – and, eventually, audiences – is anything but. There is power in her dramas and it has the capacity to overwhelm those willing to immerse themselves in her worlds.

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Zama is Martel’s first period film. La Ciénaga (The Swamp - a film that has yet to get proper UK distribution), is a family drama whose humidity – both the relationships between characters and the hothouse environment – threatens to seep from the screen. The Holy Girl revolves around a single act between a grown man and young girl at a conference in a Buenos Aires hotel that threatens to tear lives apart. While A Headless Woman, the director’s most notable success to date at the UK box office, offers a portrait of a woman so wracked by guilt that her short-term memory disappears. Each film could work as a tragedy. Zama’s portrait of a man trapped at the end of the world in a job he desperately wants to escape, also offers a platform for a coruscating existential drama. But there is also eroticism here, with the film offering up a portrait of cultural difference and our baser desires. Along with its stunning imagery, Zama is a singular film by a remarkable filmmaker who deserves to be better known.

[by Ian Haydn Smith]

Zama is now showing in cinemas and on demand. The Headless Woman is also available on Curzon Home Cinema.