PRINT April 2018


Lucrecia Martel, La niña santa (The Holy Girl), 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes.

GÉRARD DE LAIRESSE’S 1668 painting Allegory of the Five Senses arrays a quintet of emblematic figures in a Baroque setting full of statuary, arcades, and flora to represent the faculties of sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste. The Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel might find much to admire in the tableau, since many aspects of it accord with her own art: the painting’s sense of fleshiness and abundance (the director’s corporeal frames exemplify her aesthetic of profusion); its attention to varieties of hair (a marked Martel motif, along with teeth); and its inclusion of a half-hidden monkey, hunkered at the picture’s right (Martel’s bestiary extends from hunting dogs to aggressive turtles and inquisitive llamas). The composition’s metaphoric “ages of woman” continuum, which ranges from infancy to childhood to maturity, also concurs with Martel’s approach. The films in her celebrated, female-centered “Salta” trilogy, so named for the northwestern province of Argentina where the director grew up and all three films are set—respectively, La ciénaga (2001), La niña santa (The Holy Girl, 2004), and La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman, 2008)—reflect the traditional Latin American environment the director was born into, insistently mixing three or four generations at once and according as much consideration to the world of children as to that of anxious adults. A central challenge of Martel’s cinema, given the semi-incestuous physical intimacy of its brothers and sisters, children and parents, masters and servants, involves sorting out just who is what to whom—cousin? sibling? maid? friend? lover? (It is telling that the literature on Martel is littered with misidentifications of her characters’ relationships.)

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, 2017, 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes.

Mostly, though, Martel might recognize in de Lairesse’s perceptual allegory an analogue of her own sensorial cinema, which, more than the oeuvre of any other contemporary director—Alexander Sokurov and Cristi Puiu come the closest—excites and rewards the faculties via its intricate sound designs, hypertactile images, and acute appeals to the olfactory. Throughout, the Salta trilogy elicits and instructs the senses. “Look, look at the extreme vileness,” command the first words of The Holy Girl, which ends with the question “Did you hear?” hanging ominously in the air over a thermal pool in a hotel whose genteel decay has been repeatedly evoked by a maid wandering its frayed hallways, spraying copious air freshener. The masking of unpleasantness is more than a metaphor in Martel’s critique of the bourgeois society she emerged from. She portrays this world as willfully oblivious, especially in The Headless Woman, where the first words uttered after the film’s prologue—“Close. Close, close”—refer to the eyes, and count as one of Martel’s many admonitions about the dangers of seeing and the want for blindness. “I didn’t see a thing,” murmurs Momi in the final line of La ciénaga, after visiting a site where others have observed the appearance of the Virgin Mary on a water tower. That the teenage Momi is from affluence, while those who have witnessed the “miracle” are mostly from poverty, suggests that in Martel’s Salta, even the act of perceiving is prone to class difference.

Martel’s cinema accumulates a drastic catalogue of memento mori.

Little in Martel’s first films—La otra (The Other, 1989), a short experimental documentary about drag queens, and Rey muerto (Dead King, 1995), a brief, blunt feminist western—prepared viewers for the reach and complexity of her debut feature, La ciénaga, which flirts with the director’s other favorite genre, the horror film. The swamp of the title insinuates many perilous things, including the patch of quicksand in the forest that traps a mewling cow, soon set upon by dogs and pitiless children, and the brackish, perhaps pestilential swimming pool that lies alongside the crumbling rural mansion that serves as the film’s primary setting: La Mandrágora, appropriately named after both an ancient anesthetic and an equally old aphrodisiac, all desire long deadened by the in-house analgesics of alcohol and moral torpor. “That house is a disaster!” declares a relative of the clan that inhabits the Gothic pile, ruled over by the bitter, imperious Mecha—part Miss Havisham, part Norma Desmond—drunkenly lurching about the house encased in designer shades, shrieking for the indigenous maids, whom she calls “filthy savages” and accuses of thieving towels, to replenish her red wine and ice. (When Mecha noisily rattles a glass of same in an aggressive close-up of her withered hand, we can’t tell if she means to rouse the houseguests, beaten by the heat into a state of boozy lassitude beside Mandrágora’s stagnant pool, or if she is suffering from delirium tremens.) Threatening to take to her bed permanently, as her recumbent mother did for the last decades of her life, Mecha, the first of Martel’s three wounded matriarchs, like the holy girl’s forlorn mother and the amnesiac headless woman after her, oversees an entropic abode in which any opportunity for escape—here, a long-promised but ultimately futile shopping trip to Bolivia proposed by a woman with whom she is “like cousins”—inevitably proves elusive. The sense of decay and inebriation in La ciénaga becomes in The Holy Girl an aura of inertia and stanched yearning, in The Headless Woman a world of shuttered twilight and incipient madness. “Why does everyone in our family go crazy?” someone wonders in the latter film. “Tell me of one who has died sane. None.”

Lucrecia Martel, La ciénaga, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 103 minutes. Momi (Sofia Bertolotto).

As a genre, allegories of the senses were often intended to comment on life’s transience, and Martel’s cinema accumulates a drastic catalogue of memento mori. Everywhere are death, injury, mutilation, accidents, contagion, and disease (from fever to hepatitis, cholera to the plague), and, in her latest film, Zama (2017), two double dismemberments. (Martel has compared making films to practicing medicine, and her disposition toward settings such as hospitals, doctors’ offices, dental clinics, waiting rooms, and, in Zama, a makeshift mortuary suggests an affinity with other somatically inclined contemporaries, such as Puiu, Arnaud Desplechin, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul.) “He cut himself again,” the mother of a doomed little boy called Luchi sighs in La ciénaga, while Mecha frets over Joaquín, an adolescent hunter who has already lost one eye in a mishap that left his face disfigured and is forever endangering the sole remaining retina. (At a hilarious family dinner, Martel’s camera traverses a gathering of the variously bruised, cut, and contused.) Martel frames La ciénaga symmetrically with two falls, the first injurious, the second fatal, so when a naked man crashes onto a terrace from the apartment above in The Holy Girl, his survival is hailed as a miracle.

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, 2017, 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes.

The director’s emphasis on the imperiled body manifests itself in a malicious illustration of failing flesh in the opening sequence of La ciénaga. In unforgiving close-ups, Martel fragments the badly aged bodies of Mandrágora’s guests in a woozy montage of mottled, puckered, and crepey epidermis as they drunkenly rearrange the pool deck. Immobilized by humidity and vino tinto, the somnambulists seem not to notice (or care) when an intoxicated Mecha falls on shattered wineglasses, slashing her chest. Her inert husband, Gregorio, manages only a slurred warning: “Mechita, get up, it’s going to rain.” The children rush to the rescue, their readiness suggesting that such accidents are a common occurrence in the alcoholic household. As they extricate shards from her bloody torso and wrap her wounds in a towel, Mecha shows her gratitude first by accusing the maids of stealing the linens, then by muttering of the teenager who is ferrying her to the hospital, “She’s crushing the hydrangeas! Stop her!” (In one of many such scenes involving the Martelian motif of hair, Gregorio observes the panicked events as he calmly blow-dries his newly dyed coif. “You doing that for carnival?” Mecha later inquires of the hideous dye job—which will return on a similarly vain middle-aged man in The Holy Girl—and complains that the coloring is leaking onto the sheets.) The wounded monarch of Mandrágora spends the rest of the film dabbing cream on her lacerated cleavage, bemoaning the damage to her precious décolletage.

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, 2017, 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes.

Martel’s pungent petitions to the olfactory find Gregorio testing the freshness of his shirt with a quick sniff, and Mecha likewise inspecting her clothing with a brief inhalation. “It smells like fish in here. It’s awful!” she later complains, and one can well imagine an eau de Mandrágoraaromatic with top notes of mold and mildew. (As for the sense of taste, Martel’s characters seem to prefer alcohol over victuals; food appears either over-spiced, like the peppery catfish stew Mecha gingerly nibbles, or bland, like the fried egg that the hotel owner says she “craves” in The Holy Girl.) But of all the senses, it is hearing that Martel consistently privileges, claiming that she settles on a film’s sound design before forming its visual plan. Her overlapping, polyphonic dialogue, based, she says, on the meandering patterns of speech she remembers from growing up in Salta, does not always take precedence over other sounds in what she calls her “sonic atmosphere.” The opening sequence of La ciénaga has been much analyzed for its auditory plenitude—distant winter thunder rolling in the hills, muffled gunfire, an incessant choir of cicadas and birds, the nerve-flaying scrape of metal chairs being dragged along concrete, the clatter and splash of ice and wine wielded by tremulous hands. As Martel refined her aural designs, she increasingly transformed her acoustics into teasing enigmas. She commences a strange, unexplained sound before revealing its source, such as the whirling fan that two little girls sing into as a play microphone in La ciénaga or the child’s toy that intrudes almost imperceptibly on the soundtrack in one sequence of Zama before its mysterious cause is finally disclosed. These fleeting mysteries are the aural equivalent of Martel’s images in which her characters stare intently at something offscreen before the object of their attention is finally divulged (and occasionally is simply not). Martel also employs disorienting sound bridges, as in The Headless Woman, where voices from a contiguous shot sometimes begin in a previous one.

Martel transforms her acoustics into teasing enigmas.

The children’s ditty the girls sing into the fan doubles as an in-jokey segue to Martel’s next film. “Doctor John, the surgeon,” its lyrics go, “we must operate today.” One of the central characters in The Holy Girl is indeed a doctor called Jano, an otolaryngologist attending a convention of ear, nose, and throat specialists at a fading hotel, which is another of many autobiographical touches in Martel’s cinema: She has recalled vacationing there as a child during the inn’s better days. Having emphasized hearing as a central motif in the film—the hotel’s lonely owner, a divorcée and the mother of “the holy girl,” agrees to participate in a performance about auditory loss with Dr. Jano to conclude the conference and mistakes his intentions as amorous—Martel proceeds to attend to the other senses. In the haptic drama that serves as the film’s fulcrum, Dr. Jano presses his groin against Amalia, the saintly teenager of the title, as the two of them join a street crowd to watch a musician manipulate a theremin, an instrument that is famously played without being touched. Martel rhymes the actions, placing Amalia between the two: Both the doctor’s furtive frottage behind and the instrumentalist’s eerie concert in front are literal instances of “hands off.” One wonders how this event, repeated later in the film, and its aftermath might now be interpreted in the era of #MeToo. The doctor’s act inflames in Amalia a sense of mission, what she claims is a Catholic girl’s spiritual vocation to save the molester from himself but instead appears, in her determined pursuit of the physician, to be an erotic quest. Martel extends her sympathy to, rather than demonizing, the panicked Jano, who is faced with ruinous scandal at film’s end. “You’re a good man,” Amalia twice assures the doctor, and Martel appears to concur, even if he is a malefactor and a hypocrite. Like a Rohmer character, Jano responds to temptation with self-deceptive penitence, hastening his wife and children to the hotel as talismans against his illicit desire.

Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, 2017, 2K video, color, sound, 115 minutes. Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho).

Martel has occasionally attributed her striking visual style to her own myopia, and the close-up of Amalia’s hand being dragged across a sheet of plastic at the thermal pool before she spies on Dr. Jano swimming there is another of the director’s many scrim-like or slurred images. Martel is fond of filming her characters through or looking out of rain-spattered glass, thus distorting their vision, a bid for beauty but also a reminder of the traps laid by the senses, whose evidence can prove misleading, unreliable, incomplete. In her infatuation with Jano, Amalia invades his room to dab his shaving cream on her collar and twice deeply inhales the scent of him left there, a fragrance that is displaced at the film’s end as she floats in the pool with her girlfriend Josefina, who utters one of the final lines: “You notice that smell? . . . Orange blossom.” Much is made of Amelia’s sight—“I don’t think I can open my eyes,” she insists to Josefina, to which her friend rejoins, “Open your eyes, idiot”—and in fending off her advances, Jano accidentally injures those very orbs, as if unconsciously punishing her for looking.

Lucrecia Martel, La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman), 2008, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes. Verónica (María Onetto).

Sight proves treacherous in The Headless Woman, which remains Martel’s masterpiece. In its indecipherability, a canted, hazily veiled image early in the film signals the mystery that will bedevil Verónica, a middle-aged dentist metaphorically decapitated after an accident: Did she hit and kill a dog, or a young boy, while driving home? Martel summons the epistemological uncertainty that will consume Verónica as she broods over the event with her very first appearance, as a blurred specter deep in the recesses of the unfocused image. Working with newfound mastery in wide-screen, Martel methodically undoes Verónica’s world as she slips into post-traumatic fugue via a series of visual disarticulations—spatial warps, inscrutable details, extreme shallow focus, strange truncations, trompe l’oeil—and proliferating temporal ambiguities and narrative enigmas. The aforementioned wrong-footing sound bridges amplify the film’s effect of vertiginous trance. As Verónica’s bourgeois clan conspires to cover up her crime, if indeed it occurred at all—a matter the film never resolves—one becomes tempted to read The Headless Woman as political allegory, an oblique commentary on Argentina’s “dirty war” of state-executed assassinations and disappearances and the ensuing era of coerced silence (Martel has vigorously rejected such an interpretation).1

Sight proves treacherous in The Headless Woman, which remains Martel’s masterpiece.

For almost a decade after the Salta trilogy, which placed Martel at the forefront of what became known, inevitably, as the New Argentine Cinema, the director’s admirers fretted as she labored first over adapting the science-fiction comic El eternauta, which never secured funding, and then produced a six-minute drama commissioned by the fashion brand Miu Miu, Muta (2011), a cryptic horror film set on a riverboat on which glamorously attired models fight, strike catwalk poses, drink green goo out of martini glasses, and, as the title suggests, mutate. Little could one discern from these chic goings-on that the riverine setting of Muta pointed toward that of her next feature, Zama (pronounced “Sama”). The worry over Martel’s long hiatus was for naught: Her version of Antonio di Benedetto’s legendary 1956 novel of the same name, set in an eighteenth-century Spanish colony on the Asunción coast (now Paraguay), confirms Martel’s status as one of contemporary cinema’s rare geniuses.

Four stills from Lucrecia Martel’s La niña santa (The Holy Girl), 2004, 35 mm, color, sound, 106 minutes. Clockwise, from top left: Amalia (María Alché). Amalia (María Alché). Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg), Josefina’s sister (Maria Micol Ellero) and Amalia (María Alché). Amalia (María Alché) and Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg).

Far removed both temporally and geographically from contemporary Salta, Zama features many unnerving firsts for a director whose terrain is so singular: It is her first literary adaptation, period piece, and film to feature a male protagonist. However, Zama proves less of a challenge to auteurist coherence than one might initially imagine. Like Martel, di Benedetto was a provincialist, avoiding Buenos Aires for his hometown of Mendoza; he was also a cinephile who wrote film criticism and screenplays, and movies influenced his clipped scene-setting. Brilliantly refashioning di Benedetto’s slim existential novel, narrated by its arrogant eponym with unfailing self-delusion, into a fiercely elliptical and political work—the film’s anticolonialism is largely Martel’s—the director once again emphasizes the snares set by the senses. Zama opens as the erotically frustrated Don Diego de Zama, a criollo bureaucrat for the Spanish empire who is awaiting transfer from the backwater, is caught spying on a group of naked women mud-bathing by the river. They cry “Voyeur!” though in fact he is listening to them more than watching. In the novel, an outraged husband attacks Zama for this misdemeanor, but in the film he goes unaccosted—one of countless departures, both large and small, that Zama takes from its source. For instance, Martel makes Zama’s child a mestizo to underscore her cardinal theme of prejudice against the dark-skinned and abuse of the indigenous, and Zama appears in the film not as di Benedetto’s sexual predator, whose “blood’s yearning defied any bridle,”2 but as a hapless cuckold.

Three stills from Lucrecia Martel’s La mujer sin cabeza (The Headless Woman), 2008, 35 mm, color, sound, 87 minutes. Verónica (María Onetto).

Much about Martel’s Zama suggests continuity with the Salta trilogy, from the discussion of snow as a signifier of European cultural superiority, which recalls the paintings of wintry scenes that appear in her previous films, to the film’s uncanny deployment of the Shepard tone on the soundtrack, an ever-downward-spiraling drone, the ultimate expression of the director’s penchant for low frequencies. (The anachronistic music track by Los Indios Tabajaras has to be the oddest since those jaunty little marimba-driven tunes in 1950s Yasujirō Ozu films.) Like Mecha longing for her trip to Bolivia, Zama spends his time “ready to go and not going,” his prospects endlessly postponed. Martel treats time in a much more abstract manner than does the novel (which is divided into three demarcated periods: 1790, 1794, and 1799), as temporal suspension and flux, the tragedy being for her not Zama’s ceaseless humiliations but his existence only in a future he yearns for but never attains.

Martel’s pleasure in decaying outposts is renewed in the eroding colonial abodes and ghost-haunted shanties of Zama’s riverside exile.

Martel’s pleasure in decaying outposts is renewed in the eroding colonial abodes and ghost-haunted shanties of Zama’s riverside exile, as is the trilogy’s bestiary—memorably embodied by a clamorous llama that wanders through the governor’s quarters and a horse that turns to stare directly into the camera—and its aura of oppressive heat, pandemic, and injury. The director’s motif of maimed limbs and bodily abrasion, including a pair of dismembered ears that do not appear in the novel, reaches an apogee in the film’s Herzogian finale. Peopled by, among others, a blind tribe that moves en masse only at night, the conclusion’s delirious dioramas of battle in jungle grass prove hallucinatory in effect. When Zama’s expedition encounters a putrefying corpse suspended in a tree, they cover their noses with the same horrified disgust exhibited by the children in La ciénaga when they come across the rotting carcass of a cow. Martel also greatly elaborates di Benedetto’s already grotesque description of a visiting liquor merchant’s malady and death. (Martel herself faced mortality during the editing of Zama, after a diagnosis of cancer.)

Lucrecia Martel, La ciénaga, 2001, 35 mm, color, sound, 103 minutes.

Despite her additive aesthetic, Martel once contended that “to be able to think, you must be deprived of things,” and in Zama, she daringly divested the film of candles and crosses—common props for an eighteenth-century tale set in a Catholic locale. (Some sequences are barely discernible in the candleless darkness.) One thing the unerring director will never do without: the finest actors. Daniel Giménez Cacho captures Zama’s air of weary forbearance with an infinite glossary of exhaustion; a giddy, peruked Lola Dueñas plays the flirtatious object of Zama’s desire as if she were plucked from a William Congreve comedy; and the bandit Vicuña Porto, ubiquitous via rumor in the film, though unmentioned in the novel until very late, is embodied by a malevolent Matheus Nachtergaele, whose debauched baby face suggests the intermingled gene pools of Michael J. Pollard and Klaus Kinski. It is the vicious Vicuña who sends Zama into the film’s floating coda—Martel never strays far from water—with his faculty of touch violently diminished. “Do you want to live?” a little boy twice inquires of the mutilated bureaucrat. An insensate Zama does not reply.

James Quandt is senior programmer at TIFF Cinematheque in Toronto.

Zama opens Friday, April 13 at the IFC Center and the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.


1. For a fuller discussion of this film, see my “Art of Fugue: Lucrecia Martel’s The Headless Woman,” Artforum, Summer 2009, 95–96.

2. Antonio di Benedetto, Zama, trans. Esther Allen (New York: New York Review of Books, 2016), 156.