by Richard Loria, header image by Diego Levy
A teenage girl lies on a towel, stealing glances at a man swimming in an indoor pool. The man, who might be her mother’s age, whips around as if sensing someone’s gaze and the girl flinches out of sight, slipping as she does into prayer — intoned and feverish, like an incantation: mother most chaste mother most pure mother without fault…
The splosh and plop of water, disquieting in these indoor acoustics, mingle with the girl’s murmur. The man lifts himself out of the water and drops into a towel. He puts on his eyeglasses and turns to watch the girl’s mother as she submerges herself in the water. Suddenly we’re seeing through his perspective: a close-up of the doctor’s face obliquely observing the mother as she surfaces to tap at her ear, which is ailing. We hang for an uncomfortable length in the male gaze, but with a caveat: it too is being watched.
A shower cap snaps. The girl’s incantation (we hadn’t noticed when or how it vanished) returns and we’re back in her perspective, her gaze, which has witnessed these events in all their subdued menace play out. Mother approaches daughter to pester her with something: words that wash over the girl with an indifference or disregard that tests the limits of realism — “Amalia? I’m talking to you. Amalia!” — until Amalia finally turns her head away, leaving in frame an ear which, as the film progresses, will move like a floating signifier into increasingly complex territory.
This scene — 13 minutes into The Holy Girl — achieves a quietly devastating force often found in the films of Lucrecia Martel. The camera is sinuous, shifting perspectives without announcing its intent or direction. Violence is never simple violence: in this case it coexists with erotic desire, Amalia’s desire for a man three times her age; and it is usually mundane, distanced, something closer to menace — the imminent threat of violence. Sound and image acquire a dreamlike quality as they reverberate and return in new contexts. Amalia’s feverish incantation and deafness vis á vis her mother reaches a point of excess, pushing up against the limits of realism, which is never quite realism in Martel, and never so abandoned that we tip into surrealism.
At 54, with four features to her name, Martel is standing at the intersection of being both largely unknown to the filmgoing public and a magnet for critic-and-scholarly endorsements: “a body of work that from beginning to end has radiated a rare perfection.” — David Oubina / “one of the most prodigiously talented filmmakers in contemporary world cinema” — Haden Guest / “Latin America’s most important female director and one of the top female directors worldwide” — Alberto Barbera. Only one of her films, the notorious Headless Woman (2008) was met with a mixture of boos and applause at Cannes. Martel herself is sometimes pictured smoking cigarillos and staring down the camera through rose-tinted cats-eye glasses, an enigmatic smile playing on her face.
The frustration is warranted. Movies, as a whole, in order to function, quickly establish norms that then allow the filmmaker to tell a salable story — these are decisions on the level of plot, character, genre and the kind of reality the story decides on. Watching Martel is a different experience, one that often feels as though the filmmaker is interrogating and re-examining her criteria as her stories progress.
Take La Cienaga (2001), Martel’s first feature and, to my mind, the best entry point to her work.
Thunder rumbles over the opening credits. The crack of a distant rifle scatters bird cries through an overcast sky. A hand, trembling, drops ice into one of several wine glasses; it’s a crowded shot, one that recalls the Dutch Golden Age, its excess evoking a certain decay. We’re in northern-Argentina, the countryside; the crumbling vacation home of a bourgeois family. It’s summer, sweltering, and the sense of lassitude is palpable. It’s family time. Only the family is not so together. Indeed, a remarkable fissure between the worlds of the parents and that of the children runs through Martel’s “family portrait”.
Martel begins with the parents. At first, we don’t even see faces — only midsections, the loose flesh of aged bodies making their way across the poolside, dragging chairs that grate like chalk over the cement. And when we do see their faces, eyes are obscured, gazing through shades with comic vapidity, each in its own direction. Practically Buñuelian, Martel’s taste for the absurd reaches a high point when the family matriarch, Macha (Graciela Borges), slips, drops the wine glasses and falls on the shards within arm’s length of the other parents — who continue staring through their shades as if nothing happened. The surrealism of the moment is punctured when the family’s indigenous servant Isabella hears the glass shatter from within the house. She leaps to the rescue and Mecha’s daughter Momi darts after her. Suddenly two very different realities are playing out, with the surreal indifference of the older generation inhabiting the same frame as the very real — and realistic — panic of the two teenage girls. Mother Mecha seems somewhere in between, moaning in pain like anyone would, while also responding to Isabella’s succor by accusing her of theft and calling her a savage. Momi bites her nails and scrambles for a car that, when she turns the ignition, lights up with the catchy rhythms of a cumbia song.
But if La Cienaga’s opening seems bleak, it’s also a masterful setup for what follows. The film is mundane for a while thereafter; Martel seems uninterested in interesting us, content to let us dwell in what feels like the marginalia rather than the text itself. And then, mysteriously, things start to cohere. The film is — per the opening scene — a ruthless excoriation of the Argentinian bourgeois. Which is a festering, ineffectual and parasitic organism, reliant on an indigenous population that they regard with contempt, and also totally obliviously removed from a social reality that is ever-present in Martel’s work. More than this, La Cienaga is a vision of childhood that is messy, brutal, whimsical, charming, utterly mesmerizing and unlike any family portrait in cinema. The kids throw water balloons, court and headbutt each other bloody, shoot one another dead with garden tools and tear through the forest with actual rifles that they then unload on a cow lodged in mud. An inchoate understanding of the world is taking shape, one based largely on the codes and mores of the older generation. This plays out most pointedly with Mecha’s daughter Momi, who is enamored with Isabella, the family’s indigenous servant. Momi hangs on Isa’s every word, clings to her like a remora and, when Isa slips off, bites her nails while observing everything from a distance with voyeuristic intensity. This affection is complicated; all the more so when seen in the glare of her mother’s addled and ambivalent stance toward Isa. La Cienaga manages to capture a fleeting and fragile moment when people (the kids [the parents are irretrievably sunk in the sludge of what they are, like the groaning bovine that Joaquin puts out of its misery]) are on the verge of becoming. It’s a moment that retains a sense of things possible. It is also, as when we see the children echo their parents, nail-bitingly tragic: objects once in motion are hard to sway. There’s one moment when Mariano and Vero sing a song — “Doctor Jano, cirujano (surgeon)” — into a house fan. The rotating blades spice and chop the sound, catching bits of it, letting some slip through. The frequencies return to us distorted, changed and re-interpreted by their context. Martel is, more than most great directors, attuned to the suggestive possibilities of sound. What gets said and what gets heard are two different things. Much can happen between those two points. Martel takes this preoccupation one step further in her second film, The Holy Girl, a film which is nothing if not obsessed with sonic metaphor, hearing, and the act of interpretation.
The Holy Girl (2004), centers on the Amalia of the aforementioned pool scene — in which a teenage girl eyes a middle-aged man who eyes her mother as camera and sound warp and weave through their perspectives.
Like La Cienaga, The Holy Girl can sometimes feel like a documentary, its camera moving with a certain fly-on-the-wall curiosity. The setting is a provincial Argentine hotel where Amalia’s mother works. The plot surrounds a conference of — get ready for it — otolaryngologists (ear, nose and throat specialists). Queue Dr. Jano, the erotic interest and/or fixation of both Amalia and her mother. But Amalia (Maria Alche) is really the focus here, the one who draws the film together with a gravitational force. Often she does nothing but stare — either at her object or ahead and into space. In these moments, she appears to be lurching slightly forward, her eyes peering up through half-sunk lids in a look that might be a sleepwalker’s — were it not so alive with the obsessive inner workings of her character.
See, a great spiritual task has been foisted upon Amalia. The film opens with a catechism teacher preaching through tear-filled eyes to the girls about their vocation — a woman’s vocation. Through the sermon Amalia’s precocious and unruly bestie Josephina snickers and whispers about promiscuities, real and imagined. Amalia is somewhere in between, facing one direction while her attention faces another, her gaze inflected by things beyond what she ought to be tending to — as a chilling side-smile worms its way towards her ear. But Martel could care less about bad influences; Amalia is too much her own for that, so much her own that she cannot understand “vocation” but through her own interpretation. Like the personages in Butler’s Lives of the Saints she seems to shoot past the mark with a cosmic intensity. And so, Amalia homes in on the subject of her interpreted vocation: Dr. Jano. The auditory kinship between the medical conference and the theme of interpretation is inescapable. Then there’s Amalia’s mother’s ear trouble. And the preponderance of mishearing and corrections. Suddenly we’re immersed, entangled, lost as Amalia in a metaphorical forest of echo, resonance, and correspondence. But Martel is clear. Much is open to interpretation, or might be, and it’s in the act of interpretation that we become who we are. We are because we interpret the world in our own way.
Watching The Holy Girl called to mind another interpretation: one that also features an older-male/younger-female erotic dynamic: Stanley Kubrick’s interpretation of Nabokov’s Lolita, in which the celebrated Hollywood director embalms a story of sexual violence in the sad trappings of the male gaze, while also stripping away Nabokov’s condemnatory breadcrumbs. The metaphors treating Hollywood’s depiction of violence tend towards concealment. Violence is embalmed, laminated, shellacked and — by the time it reaches us — sheening. Quiet as they are, Martel’s films are also concerned with violence. But her tack takes another direction. We see this, quite poignantly, in her third film, The Headless Woman (2004).
The Headless Woman (2004) is, perhaps, Martel’s most challenging film, as reflected by the polarized critical response, and I wouldn’t recommend starting here. Unless you wish to be a total radical and buck me from the perch of pretended omniscience. Why? Because of Martel’s films it retains the frailest connection to those aspects that traditionally keep people in the seats: plots and storylines. The film is knowingly and intentionally adrift and, like it’s protagonist, unmoored — it strains to find a pacing and visual language rooted in and expressive of its subject: the headless woman. Five minutes into the film, we find our heroine, the middle aged Vero(nica) driving gaily down a dirt road somewhere in Argentina as she listens to Scottish pop band Middle of the Road’s iconic “Soley Soley.” Vero’s phone starts beeping from the seat beside her. A single second passes during which she glances at and reaches for the phone. The car bangs and jumps. Something crunches and rumbles under the wheels. An agonizing minute passes as Vero collects her shaken self, and then she turns the car on and keeps driving. Through the rear windshield, we see what appears to be a dog in a shot that masterfully departs from the third person objectivity of the past few minutes. Which is to say, the camera has been watching and narrating Vero through a lens that we, the viewers, have had no reason to doubt. But who is doing the seeing in this next shot? The camera observes the dog from an angle that might be the rearview mirror; only it isn’t. It sits behind Vero’s head, seeing the dog with an implausible clarity, one that makes us wonder: Is the image actual or invented? Martel allows the shot to sit in ambiguity: we are seeing what happened, we are seeing what might have happened, we are seeing what Vero hopes has happened, we are not even seeing, but imagining. Things go south from here; and crucially, they don’t. Vero returns home. Life appears to move along the same track; but the collision reverberates, the track has diverged, Vero is moving into unmapped territory.
What we are seeing is a kind of horror. The shaken Vero heads to the emergency room. “Please fill this out,” says an indigenous nurse, handing her a form. And Vero does, only to have the smiling nurse reply: “Not my name, yours.” But horror here is not the kind we’re accustomed to. It’s not embodied, nor is there a single agent or perpetrator there to enact it. What it is is unsettling — the way that Vero moves through the world in muted panic, the way no one notices the slight transmogrification into uncertainty, and her — or our — inability to articulate and think through what’s going on. To the extent that horror is in dialogue with evil, there’s some Arendt here: “Evil comes from a failure to think. It defies thought for as soon as thought tries to engage itself with evil and examine the premises and principles from which it originates, it is frustrated because it finds nothing there. That is the banality of evil.” But Martel is not dramatizing Arendt. And Arendt’s banality of evil is always, in hindsight, condemnable: an act that we can all agree is wrong. What Martel and Arendt share is an interest in the mundane, a fascination with our inability to think. Where they depart is what horror looks like. Vero hitting the body (of the person or dog, we’re not sure) and continuing on her way is indeed horrible. But what happens later, the failure to see Vero, to recognize when something is off, the various misinterpretations, mishearings, and dropped signals, is hardly enough to be put on trial. Is anyone at fault when no one is up to the task?
Maria Onetto’s performance of Vero, and Martel’s direction of that performance, is, once again, masterful. But The Headless Woman is also a transition film in which one senses restlessness, an ambivalence towards the style in which she’s made her name. Martel’s fourth feature, Zama, is a radical break from her first three, one that finds a striking new form to explore the themes that haunt Martel.
Zama (2017) is itself an interpretation, an adaption of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name. The novel didn’t reach Anglophones until 2016 via Esther Allen’s nimble translation, after which the New Yorker hailed it as “a neglected South American masterpiece.” The story follows the eponymous Don Diego de Zama, a minor official in the Colonial Spanish empire, as he languishes in a remote post in Paraguay while awaiting transfer to somewhere more civil. This is new territory for Martel, not only in that it’s an adaptation, and one that centers on a man, but also texturally, as Martel sheds the sometimes cloistered feel of her previous films. The film opens, for example, on the heroic poster image of Don Diego de Zama presiding over the shore. It’s an establishing shot, and also, wryly, a Landscape that is very much in dialogue with the tradition of landscape painting. It reminds one of Berger’s observations on the form: that it is the penultimate expression of a capitalist ethos, that the two are complicit, that The Landscape inevitably tends towards an expression of land as property, a think to be had, and is irretrievably rooted in notions of hierarchy, class and privilege. What we are seeing is Zama seeing the land as his domain — it is there but for Zama, for the Colonial Spanish empire’s subjugation. But as Berger also notes: “Landscapes can be deceptive. Sometimes a landscape seems to be less a setting for the life of its inhabitants than a curtain behind which their struggles, achievements and accidents take place. For those who are behind the curtain, landmarks are no longer only geographic but also biographical and personal.” The magisterial patina of that opening image peels away. Its stability and serenity cede to a phantasmagoric otherworldliness. Martel renders, somehow, both an orientalist painting and the absurdity behind the painter’s fantasy, the brutality implied by such fantastic projection. From the cover of the dunes, Zama watches a group of women bathing in mud. “Voyeur,” one shouts, while another laughs, while another takes off after him in a scene that runs the gamut from creepy to beautiful to outrageous. It ends in abrupt viciousness. Later, animals wander surrealistically in and out of frame. Prophecies and inexplicable happenings destabilize an already unstable Zama. In the background, slaves and servants watch the Europeans gush over good wine (“What nobility!”) and utter trivialities (“Europe is better remembered by those who were never there.”). Zama pines; after both a transfer to Lema and the lady Luciana Piñares de Luenga. And each object of desire twines into a stranger storyline by the end of the film. As it turns out, the most important romantic intrigue of Zama’s life played out before the film began. Desperate for a transfer, Zama shreds his last tie to dignity (in a metafictional subplot that nods to the author of the original novel) and embarks on a quixotic hunt that maybe, just maybe, will get him where he so desires. As it turns out, barbarity is closer to home than we imagined, and nobility is as ludicrous and arbitrary as the conditions that make one noble. The film’s interest in waiting, and its dialectic of civility and barbarism call mind C.P. Cavafy’s “Waiting for the Barbarians”, in which a subject of the empire voices his doubts (as to the state of the state) to a voice that has none:
Why don’t our distinguished orators turn up as usual to make their speeches, say what they have to say?
Because the barbarians are coming today and they’re bored by rhetoric and public speaking.
Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion?
(How serious people’s faces have become.)
Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,
everyone going home lost in thought?
Because night has fallen and the barbarians haven’t come.
And some of our men just in from the border say
there are no barbarians any longer.
Now what’s going to happen to us without barbarians?
Those people were a kind of solution.