Zama/Lucrecia Martel

In Antonio Di Benedetto’s brilliant existential novel, the semi-aristocratic Don Diego de Zama is stationed in Asunción, now Paraguay’s capital but then a backwater of the Spanish Empire, as a functionary for the Spanish Crown. He dreams and plots for a better posting, where his family can join him. His fruitless efforts last more than a decade; in desperation, with the hopes of making his mark as a warrior and thereby earning the promotion he could not get as a functionary, he finally joins a posse in search of the bandit Vicuna Porto.  The novel is strange, mysterious, and illuminating. Lucrecia Martel’s film not only captures the essence of Di Benedetto’s masterwork; it goes one step further and crystallizes the novel’s capacity to confound and reveal at the very same time. Unlike other adaptations, this film cannot be separated from the book, not because it is dependent on the written words but because it reflects them back from a new angle. Both book and film must not be missed. Click here for trailer and screenings near you.   •Availability: Opens New York City April 13, Film Society of Lincoln Center and IFC Center; Chicago, Gene Siskel Film Center.  Thanks to Courtney Ott, Cinetic Media, for arranging this interview. Thanks to Carlos Gutierrez for translating. A Strand Releasing film.


DT: I normally view books and films as totally independent entities, but I had a different experience with Zama. The book and the film are totally separate, but you and Di Benedetto seemed to me like a daughter and father working together on the family farm, side by side. Perhaps the daughter will plant a different crop, but she and her father are still tilling the same land. That being said, how did you translate the book into the film? More specifically, what was the conceptual process of imagining the film?

LM: The truth is, I probably would have said something different before making this film. When we talk about film and literature, we think about two completely separate entities. We see literature as impressionable characters and cinema as sound and images, but I learned through this process that there’s something very similar between the reader of literature and the screenwriter. When you read a novel, you’re submitted into a rhythm and an intensity that’s very similar to when you’re writing a screenplay. For me the distance is not that great, because basically what’s needed is a reader who gets affected by the text. It’s basically the same process.


Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)


DT: One of the outstanding features of the book was its “enigmatic temporality”—a phrase from Esther Allen, who translated Zama into English. How did you deal with the challenge of portraying ambiguous time in a medium that’s constantly in the present?

LM: That’s another myth about period films, because ultimately what is the time of the film? The book was written in 1957 and tells the story of the end of the 18th century, and it’s shot in the first decade of the 2000s. So what is the time of the film? I think it’s ultimately a mistake to think of the time of the film as one that’s set in the storyline. I experienced this as well.  I think the period piece is inevitably a film about the present. And there’s another idea, that the storyline gets confused with the film; the film is minimized to its plot and the time of the plot of the storyline.


DT: For Zama the character, time is interwoven with identity and place. Is that typical of Zama’s class?

LM: What the film narrates is an intimate drama of any bourgeoisie in Latin America, particularly today, particularly in Argentina. The drama of Zama is the drama of any petit bourgeois in Latin America. The impossibility of being in a place, being in internal transit.

DT: And what about identity?

LM: In terms of identity what interested me most about the novel is what one is forced to be by being someone. What we consider positive in terms of identity I see as something negative, actually. Being someone is actually a restriction of freedom. I thought the Internet would allow for that, for identity to thrive, but I think it was the opposite, it was a failure.


DT: The third challenge I saw with making the book into a film was dealing with Zama’s alternating hallucinations and sense of reality. As a filmmaker, what elements of the medium did you use to distinguish between his illusions and reality?

LM: For me that’s why the work with sound requires so much care, so much attention. The sound is what allows for the audience to be submerged in this state and not trust the images; it allows for the audience to see beyond the images. This sound immersion becomes very particular in allowing the viewer to see beyond the images by not confirming what you’re seeing with the images but taking a step forward.  It demands a very specific type of work. In cinema, Foley basically re-creates the sounds of what’s seen, but sadly most of what is done in sound design is done as Foley; sound designers make the sound of what’s being seen just to underline the images but not to create something different.

DT: Do you think that aspect of sound functions because sound works more unconsciously? People think about the images they see, but they have an unconscious or subconscious perception of the sound?

LM: I think there can only be unconscious perception of sound if sound does not reference what you see on screen. It’s a tough balancing act because you have to give audiences enough clues not to make it look like delirium but also enough things for them to not reference what’s onscreen. Sound is more savage, it’s less domesticated. Usually sound just makes a re-formation of the images. I think romantic comedies are the lowest genre because very few times they question reality, if ever.


DT: Di Benedetto wrote two screenplays. Did you watch the films or read the screenplays?

LM: No, unfortunately, no.


DT: In many ways, the film, like the book, is about nothingness. Nevertheless, it was completely gripping. How do you dissect nothingness to make something thrilling?

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

Daniel Giménez Cacho in Zama (2017)

LM: I think the great malady of our time is believing entirely in plot, in storyline. Make believe that the storyline is everything, that the plot is everything. For me, identifying the plot with the film is exactly like not understanding the difference between a house and a home. One is the skeleton, the structure, but what gives content is something different, something completely else. So knowing that difference, that the film is not the plot itself, is key. People think it’s very difficult to make this kind of film, but it’s actually not more difficult or easier, it’s just a different system of beliefs, a different notion of time, a different notion of  cause and effect. With a timeline where there’s the future, the past, and the beginning, you have a construction that is so elementary it doesn’t allow us to talk about emotions.

DT: When I said nothing, I meant it in an existential sense.

LM: I understand the perception of nothingness, but I see the film as full of emotional moments. I don’t see the nothingness, I don’t think it actually exists. We’re just used to being taken by the hand everywhere—by the nose in this case. It’s like an amusement park, but in this particular case we arrived at the amusement park and the lights are out, so where are we heading?


DT: That’s a great image. You changed certain details in the book. For instance, at the end of the film, Zama is rescued by the Indian, not the blond boy. How did you decide which details to change, which to keep, which to throw away?

LM: The first things I took out were the dreams and the symbolic elements—for example, the blond kid. I used different kids, not one blond kid. Something I decided to keep was his attention to his desire, which he can’t complete, can’t accomplish. Another important thing I  kept was identity, particularly with Vicuna Porto; that he embodies evilness. For any government it’s easier that someone embodies evilness because that avoids critical thinking, it’s an easy way out.  In this country it’s very obvious, Trump is always creating enemies, Iranians and Koreans, creating this enemy as a way to avoid people.


Still from ZAMA (2017)

Still from ZAMA (2017)

DT: I thought the film was a tremendous translation of the book, but you even went one step further. You crystallized the essence of the book with Vicuna Porto. He’s this weird character—he’s like Puck, sometimes really evil, sometimes kind of funny—but there’s this moment where he’s completely honest and says to Zama, “You know where the cocos are, right?” It was as if all of the pretense and false identity and everything else fall away even though they are actually embodied in that moment, which wasn’t in the book. Was that intentional on your part?

LM: For me it was very important, toward the end, that it’s just an absurd preoccupation, someone who fervently believes in something that ultimately is absurd. I think that existential experience actually happens to all of us, that we’re always blind about something absurd, and moments like illness or the death of someone close makes us question why we have worked so hard to achieve so little, so it’s incredible that we can keep our lives going like this. Because it’s everyday life it’s hard to grasp those moments of questioning. Vicuna Porto makes precisely that point at the end:  he’s worrying about the coconuts. When I read the novel, I had this euphoria that I understood something about existence that I don’t know how to explain, but it was a moment of great happiness, with no reason or explanation. So years later, this is what I brought: this sense of euphoria.


DT: When Matheus Nachtergaele, who played Vicuna Porto, asked that question about the coconuts, did you as a filmmaker have a feeling of “Oh my God, I got it”?

LM: It’s very difficult to have that certainty when you’re in the middle of shooting, because those moments can be misleading. However, when Matheus was acting I knew we were going in the right direction. He’s a great actor. He looks a little bit like Jack Nicholson. Thank you for reading this wonderful book.


DT: It’s one of my favorites. Thank you for making this wonderful film.


Copyright © Director Talk 2018

A Decent Woman/Lukas Rinner

With deadpan humor and Jacques Tati-like architectural comedy, Lukas Rinner explores the personal awakening of a housemaid working in a gated community situated next to a nudist colony. A Decent Woman is the closing night film in “Neighboring Scenes,” a showcase of Latin American cinema copresented by the Film Society of Lincoln Center and Cinema Tropical, January 26-31.  Availability: New York City, Walter Reade Theater, January 31.  Thanks to Hannah Thomas, Film Society of Lincoln Center, for arranging this interview.


DT: One of the things that really struck me is the way you built the film through contrasts—tight compositions vs. very long shots; the nudist colony vs. the gated community; the arid artificiality of the gated community vs. the gorgeous, natural lushness of the nudist colony. Can you talk about how you intentionally used contrasts to amplify the content of the script.

LR: I’m very interested in the contrast of architectural spaces. When I’m writing the script I’ve already found architectural spaces that will underline the conflict in the story. With this film, I found this nudist sex club, which had a very wild and extravagant nature, next to a gated community, which for me is very representational of contemporary society. I thought this energy of contemporary spaces would be a very powerful, ambitious contrast to underlie the main conflict of the film. So the starting point was actually the architectural spaces of the film.

DT: So you actually found this nudist colony next to that crazy housing development and that became the basis of the script?

LR: Yes! It’s a real story. There is a real conflict between the two spaces, so the departure point of the whole film was almost documentary. The nudist colony used to be a factory before the 2001 crisis. The company went bankrupt, and one day the owner found a nudist sunbathing in his abandoned factory area. He started to charge them money and eventually decided, “I’ll just make a nudist colony because that’s what’s working now.”

DT: I assume it didn’t end up the same way as it did in the film.

LR: It’s thriving. Five, six hundred people go there each weekend, so it’s becoming a really big phenomenon. In Argentina, which is  a society that’s very taboo about nudity especially, there’s no nudist culture like you can find in Europe, so it was very secretive and very hidden.


DT:  You used symbols a lot: the teddy bears when Belen and her boyfriend are coming back from the amusement park, or the broken cup and saucer when Belen is at her housekeeping job.  Can you talk about your use of symbols to further the story?

LR: I started by not communicating too much through dialogue. In a lot of German and Austrian cinema, the main drama is driven by explicit dialogue. In this film, I tried to build in these visual puzzles that eventually come back to start communicating what’s going on in the film without having to communicate it through dialogue. We tried to interweave images throughout the film that eventually splash or come back as motives that comment on what’s going on in the characters without having to communicate it through dialogue.

DT: It’s very musical in that sense.

LR: Yes, for sure. We outline the film with notes before we write the screenplay, and we have very simple dialogue that’s not too revealing of the psychology of the characters. I think this is more intriguing and physically communicates what’s going on inside our characters. When Belen throws away the object, it’s one of the turning points in the film; we see that she’s starting to rebel in the household, but it’s a very thoughtful sort of communication. It’s very visual too.


DT: Let’s talk about Iride Mockert’s performance. It’s really extraordinary. She’s very self-contained while being an incredibly physical actress. Can you assess her performance from a director’s point of view, but also talk about what it was like working with her.

LR: When we did the auditions, we got a lot of actresses, but she was the one who had the best physical performance. She immediately understood—from the opening scene of the interview at the employment agency to the later scene in the house in the gated community you could already see in her posture that there was this difficult transformation. There’s a progression that we needed in the film for the character, and we believe that her ability to achieve it came from a very physical theater background. She did a well-known play here that was her alone on the stage for two hours and was extremely physical. We knew she came from that background and in that sense it was very straightforward to work with her. We tried to map out a physical transformation of the character much more than a psychological transformation. We worked a lot with postures in each scene, with the opening up of her character throughout her postures in the film.

DT: Also her face changed completely. During the orgy scene she’s absolutely stunning, whereas when she’s riding to the amusement park with her boyfriend, her face is really homely and bloated. The transformation is unbelievable.

LR: It’s something that was also a surprise for me. There was almost an aesthetic transformation in her. Sometimes she would be very pale when she was inside in the gated community, but then we had some scenes in the nudist colony where she took on this absolute beauty and presence that was really strong. In the image of her as the Venus, the first time she’s naked in the film, I think she gets this beautiful presence that happens almost magically.


DT: That was actually my next question. You had these amazing reveals. The Venus of course was one of them, and the first time you show the nudist colony is brilliant. Can you talk about using reveals as a cinematic technique?

LR: We tried to insert that little by little and also play with this discovery that she goes through, this sort of magical discovery of this place, almost like Alice in Wonderland, where she goes through this rabbit hole and suddenly discovers this world with these different activities. It was also hard to observe this fine line where you can still be comedy but not make fun of the characters, to be too explicit about the nudity and maintain some sort of beauty in the sex club. I think we managed. Sometimes the pictures became almost like paintings, in the nudist colony especially.

DT: There was definitely a Titian quality to the compositions.  That was intentional, I assume?

LR: My DOP and I started to investigate nudity in cinema history to understand where this film would go, how to represent bodies. We found it was a dead end, because there’s not that much done with explicit nudity in cinema. So we had to go back to classical paintings to see how to frame naked bodies in nature. When we started putting the camera in certain places in the nudist club, we were overwhelmed by understanding that we suddenly had these classical paintings that formed almost naturally there.

DT: Some of your compositions reminded me of the compositions in the Taviani brothers’ last movie, Wondrous Boccaccio. They also resemble classical paintings, it’s just that in yours the characters don’t have their clothes on. Let’s talk about your use of sound, which was very interesting. Not only do you use ambient sound to enhance the feeling, but you also make sound a subject in the script as a symbol of letting things in and keeping things out, like the horrible lady in the gated community who wants to redo her windows to keep the birdsong out.

LR: In that scene especially we tried to anticipate through sound this invasion from the other side rather than start immediately with the image of the nudist club, to anticipate that there’s this strange presence next door. The whole project, from the first idea to the finished film, took six months, so there was something very improvised, almost like a fermentation in the whole making of the film. I tried to get, at least musicwise, some of that feeling into the film, especially some of the sequences where she’s walking in the Province of Buenos Aires or some of the passages between the two spaces. We inserted an element of tribal drums that would also set this revolutionary mood, so we worked with Korean musicians who incorporated Korean drumming into the score. As it was a Korean coproduction, we wanted to have a Korean element somehow.


DT: It might have been improvised, but the script itself is very tight, with a fair amount of foreshadowing.  How do you use that kind of foreshadowing without making the film trite or predictable?

LR: What we really tried to maintain was a surprising effect throughout the film—to anticipate a little bit but there is always something more to come, to always bring the film to places you wouldn’t understand that the viewer immediately works with you to show. Especially with the ending of the movie we tried to completely spread outside the classical progression  of the film, and it makes a sort of revolutionary coda, where we create this almost cathartic element for the viewer that you can’t necessarily predict. I think for most people this was the most surprising element. We tried to build layers of things that would potentiate each other with the progression of the film.


DT: Whenever Belen appears with her boyfriend, they’re always in tight, constricted spaces.

LR: We tried to develop this sort of classical love story that somehow goes noplace. There are these  strange encounters of love with this romantic security guard who expects something from love that he can’t even sustain. We tried to find these awkward, funny moments in non-spaces, because what happens is that those contemporary spaces are beautiful to look at but there’s almost no space for real human interaction. Basically there are all these places where they can meet, like the security golf cart or the security booth, and I think it says a lot about how those spaces work as architectural spaces but also no real space for human interaction.


DT: One of the most powerful scenes for me is the dancing scene in the nudist colony where you have a 360 degree pan and end up on the singer. First of all, she’s not what you expect to find at the end of the shot. Second of all, you’ve seen this woman throughout the film without knowing that she had this talent, this power. Her delivery is so potently about self; was that just a happy coincidence, or did you work to achieve that?

LR: I developed this together with my DOP. This film talked a lot about how bodies are represented in our commercial, globalized world and how you see naked bodies and classify beauty. We tried to make this a commercial shot with beautiful lighting but undermine it with these not perfect bodies but still find the sheer beauty and poetry in that movement and in her song. Basically we tried to undermine this commercial element in the whole scene.


DT: When the end first started, I thought to myself, “Oh no, he’s going to pull a Chantal Akerman Jeanne Dielman sort of ending,” which I detest. But as your film went on, the action took on new proportions and new meaning. And that final shot was absolutely hysterical—it makes me laugh just thinking about it. Were you nervous that people were going to react badly to the ending, were you ambivalent, or did you just go into it whole hog saying, “Wow, this is great”?

LR: Of course we were a little bit worried about it. We absolutely thought it was going to be very polemical and quite controversial, but one of the most beautiful moments for us came when we presented the film for the first time and people started laughing a lot during the ending, which is what we tried to achieve. We tried to fashion a moral dilemma by creating this catharsis where you can laugh about something very terrible, where death and murder become almost this humorous element. I was very interested in this moral dilemma. We really didn’t know how it would play out, so for me it was a relief that there are people out there who share this very dark humor. I was really happy about it. As for the final shot, that monument really exists in the gated community, and the first thought that came into my head when we saw it was, “We really have to blow that up.”


DT: Are you a Jacques Tati fan, because there were definitely Jacques Tati overtones, at least for me.

LR: It’s true! I hadn’t thought about it, but you’re right. I really like the humor in his films. I see a definite connection, but it hadn’t occurred to me until now.


DT: Is there anything you want your audiences to take away that maybe they’re not?

LR: We made the film to generate conversations about society and what’s going on. I think it’s a film that’s not polemically political but you know there’s a lower level of real political issues, which I think are important to talk about. If the film can motivate audiences to talk about inequality in society and about living spaces and how we relate to each other, I think that’s an important thing to do.


Copyright © Director Talk 2017