Two things describe Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s characters: they’re never really alone and the help others offer them is rarely truly benign. Her debut, “La Ciénaga,” showed an extended family going to seed and placing themselves unknowingly in danger over the course of a humid summer. It borrowed from Renoir and Altman in its choice to avoid settling on a central protagonist.
Her fourth and latest feature, “Zama,” orients itself far more around one man’s performance. In fact, lead actor Daniel Giménez Cacho’s turn shows great empathy for the title character. His personality is the antithesis of the proto-fascist blond madmen played by Klaus Kinski.
Zama was born in South America but works for the Spanish Crown. He feels bored in the town where he lives and waits for a letter from the Spanish king allowing him permission to transfer. Until then, he tries to avoid doing anything to anger those in power. He takes every job the region’s governors offer him. While they have the ability to leave, he is stuck behind. Somehow, the king never gets around to replying to him. Giving up hope, he decides to join a group of soldiers heading after the bandit Vicuña Porto.
Martel suggests the complexities of her country’s formation, adapting her script from Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name. Zama is as depressed as he is privileged. Giménez Cacho’s eyes are soulful and melancholy, often staring in the distance or at the ground. Zama goes through life in a daze. Others constantly refer to him as the “Corregidor,” a Spanish word left untranslated in the subtitles, but which roughly means “mayor.” He and his eventual opponent Vicuña Porto are vulnerable people with baggage that’s been forced on them.
It’s easy to watch contemporary or classic Argentine films and come away with the impression the entire country is white. (In reality, 10 percent of its population is made up of people of color.) Argentina’s conquistadors were more efficient at killing off its indigenous population than any other South American nation. Martel’s main characters in her contemporary films are always upper middle class white people, but their high social status does not protect them from sexual abuse, as in “The Holy Girl,” or from descending into a precarious mental state in “The Headless Woman.”
In fact, “The Headless Woman” and “Zama” share much in common, despite their protagonists’ gender and temporal differences. The former film gives a reason for its anti-heroine’s mental condition, beginning with a car accident where she may or may not have run over a child. For Zama, merely living in 19th century Latin America and being given a taste of power but not enough to truly have control over his life leaves him looking as though he needs a prescription for antidepressants. More than any other previous Martel film, “Zama” is driven around a central performance; “The Headless Woman” only starts to come together when the audience can focus on the world around the titular character. Zama is more self-aware about the extent to which he’s being controlled by the people who surround him; in Martel’s contemporary films, the presence of servants serves as a barrier between her main characters and their necessary confrontation with the uglier aspects of reality.
It took eight years for Martel to get the production funds to make “Zama,” despite patrons as powerful as Pedro Almodóvar and Danny Glover. In the end, money from eight countries, including the US, went into this film. I think the Argentine New Wave that emerged in the 2000s is one of the high points of this century’s cinema and Martel is its greatest director. Many critics and cinephiles feel the same way, but this has not led to commercial success for her films anywhere in the world, as far as I know. All four of her features have been distributed in the US — “The Holy Girl” was even released by Fine Line, a now-defunct company owned by Time Warner — but North American audiences did not support them. The audience for subtitled films seems to be bottoming out. While Spanish is not a foreign language for much of the US population, there’s no reason to expect people of Mexican or Puerto Rican descent to automatically turn out for art films from Argentina.
“Zama” has points of contact with ‘70s North American Westerns, and it’s not anti-colonial in a crowd-pleasing way like the Colombian film “Embrace of the Serpent,” an arthouse hit in the US a few years ago. Martel clearly identifies with the overdogs even as she criticizes them and calls attention to the way they use working class people. Her films are not easily digestible and resist snap judgments. I disliked “The Headless Woman” on a first viewing, but a second look led me to put it on my 2009 top 10 list. Perhaps “Zama” will go down smoother for novices to Martel’s work in context. The Film Society of Lincoln Center is preceding and overlapping its release with a retrospective of her brief oeuvre from April 10-15, including three rarities: the shorts “Dead King” and “Muta” and free screenings of “Light Years,” Manuel Abramovich’s documentary about the making of “Zama.”
ZAMA | Directed by Lucrecia Martel | In Spanish with English subtitles | Strand Releasing | Opens Apr. 13 | Film Society of Lincoln Center, 144-165 W. 65th St.; filmlinc.org | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.; ifccenter.com