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March 1 – April 7, 2019

Deep Water. The Cinema of Lucrecia Martel

During the late 1990s, Lucrecia Martel (b. 1966) emerged as one of the leading directors of the highly acclaimed New Argentine Cinema. With her features, La ciénaga/The Swamp, La niña santa/The Holy Girl and La mujer sin cabeza/The Headless Woman, Martel established herself as one of the most celebrated female auteurs in Latin America. The critically acclaimed Zama, which premiered in Venice in 2017, after a nine-year hiatus, catapulted her into the pantheon of arthouse cinema. She is currently working on a documentary of the story of murdered photographer and indigenous land rights activist Javier Chocobar, slain while fighting the removal of his community from their ancestral land in Argentina.

Martel’s first three features—sometimes referred to as the Salta trilogy for their shared setting in the northeastern Argentine province where the director grew up—revolve around families from the provincial bourgeoisie at specific moments of crisis—be it the social decline of plantation owners drowning in their own inertia (in La ciénaga); the sexual awakenings of a teenager caught up in religious mysticism (inLa niña santa); or the existential crisis of a female dentist trying to cover up a hit-and-run accident (in The Headless Woman). Focusing on the domestic sphere, Martel’s films dissect the indolence and parochialism of the life of the middle class in the province, unearthing the decay that lies just beneath the surface.

Like many contemporary Latin American directors, Martel addresses highly political topics, including religion and the role of the Catholic church, patriarchy, same-sex or incestuous desires, privileges associated with race and class, and the role of memory in a post-dictatorship society. What is unique about her films, however, is how they demand that viewers formulate their own ethical stance. Challenging dominant visual strategies, Martel’s camera prefers to capture people from oblique angles to obstruct identification, and it frequently adopts the perspective of a ten-year-old to render both a sense of childlike curiosity and the uncanny. Along similar lines, montage techniques emphasize the unresolved, the truncated, and the elliptical, while Martel’s celebrated soundscapes often undercut visual information, thus deactivating the power of the image. Clearly, Martel seeks to reproduce in viewers the same feelings of abandonment and disorientation experienced by her characters. The effect of these aesthetic choices is to call into question the facile promise of naturalism.

While formally and politically consistent with her previous work, Zama marks a new direction in Martel’s oeuvre. Based on Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same title, the film is her first literary adaptation, her first period piece, the first not set in her native Salta, the first featuring a male protagonist, and the first without a swimming pool. It’s a leap forward that does not so much record a world but invent it. Even more so than the Salta trilogy, Zama provides access to a reality otherwise beyond reach, forcing viewers to register the uncertainty and contingency of life. Watching Zama is at times a hypnotic and deeply immersive experience that continues long after the film has ended.

For Martel, filmmaking is always a form of discovery and preservation. Repeatedly, she has underscored the revelatory power of film: “We are confined to a certain way of perception,” she observed, “and what cinema allows you to do is to distort this perception a little bit, and for me, with luck, in this distortion, between what the film does and what the spectators do, a certain type of revelation can occur—a small revelation, not a big truth.” – Gerd Gemünden

Gerd Gemünden is the Sherman Fairchild Professor in the Humanities at Dartmouth College, where he teaches Film and Media Studies and German Studies, and is chair of the Comparative Literature Program. He has published widely on U.S. and German film history and theory. His latest book, Lucrecia Martel, will be published this summer by the University of Illinois Press.

Special thanks: Paola Ibarra Deschamps—David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies, Harvard.

 


Friday March 1 at 9pm
Sunday March 10 at 7pm

The Headless Woman
(La mujer sin cabeza)

Directed by Lucrecia Martel. With María Onetto, Claudia Cantero, César Bordón
Argentina 2008, 35mm, color, 87 min. Spanish with English subtitles

A hit-and-run accident sets the plot in motion in The Headless Woman, Lucrecia Martel’s most suspense-driven feature to date (with echoes of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo). The title refers to dentist Verónica, who, after hitting something on a dusty country road (a boy? a dog?), drives away. Deeply disturbed, she becomes profoundly erratic and oblivious to what happens around her, while her family, hearing of the death of a young boy, circle the wagons. The hierarchy between social classes, while never absent from Martel’s previous features, takes front and center here as the film zeroes in on the impermeable lines separating the indigenous poor from the white middle class. Their pact of silence regarding the possible victim, their complete disavowal, and their eagerness to cover up all traces can be seen as a barely-disguised reference to Argentinean society during the dictatorship, when an estimated 30,000 people were disappeared—a period specifically invoked by the film’s diegetic music and fashion. Working for the first time in Cinemascope, Martel frequently uses extreme shallow focus, often with Verónica’s blonde hair dominating the foreground of the frame, while behind her, and out of focus, various secondary characters, often the indigenous servants and maids, are barely distinguishable. Due to Martel’s refusal to psychologize, Onetto’s stand-out performance conveys, almost entirely through non-verbal means, Véronica’s confusion and ultimate transformation. Print courtesy Walker Art Center.

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Saturday March 23 at 7pm

La Ciénaga

Directed by Lucrecia Martel. With Martín Adjemián, Diego Baenas, Leonora Balcarce
Argentina 2001, 35mm, color, 101 min. Spanish with English subtitles

A winner of the Alfred Bauer Award at the 2001 Berlinale, La ciénaga, Lucrecia Martel’s celebrated ópera prima, revolves around the declining fortunes of a well-to-do family while they gather on their neglected plantation during a steamy summer. Here Mecha, the matriarch (veteran star Graciela Borges), presides over her four children and a good-for-nothing husband, who pass their time drinking cheap red wine around a putrid swimming pool. An accident leads to Mecha’s encounter with her cousin Tali, who also has four children and lives in a nearby city, and their families and fates begin to interlock. The titular bog signals entrapment and paralysis, yet underneath the stagnant surface one senses the undercurrents of “deviant” sexual desires. The depiction of a crumbling family of elevated status has a strong tradition in Argentine cinema—think of Leopoldo Torre Nilsson or María Luisa Bemberg—but Martel’s emphasis on the fraught relation between the white patrona (mistress) and the indigenous empleada (maid) introduces a new dimension. Add to that a sprinkling of the supernatural tales of Horacio Quiroga, and you have a perfect stew of dread, brimming with ominous forebodings, as the film slowly trickles towards its tragic climax. Print courtesy Janus Films.

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Sunday March 31 at 4pm

La niña santa (The Holy Girl)

Directed by Lucrecia Martel. With Mercedes Morán, Carlos Belloso, Alejandro Urdapilleta
Argentina/Italy/Netherlands/Spain 2004, 35mm, color, 106 min. Spanish with English subtitles

A potent mix of Catholicism, mysticism and eroticism, La niña santa explores the sexual awakening of teenager Amalia—played by Maria Alché with inscrutable demeanor—who lives with her mother Helena in a hotel that has seen better days. During a medical convention, one of the participants, Doctor Jano, takes an interest in Helena, an attractive but lonely divorcée. When the doctor, unbeknown to Helena, sexually molests Amalia during a theremin concert, she reacts with shock and a hint of excitement. Taking her lessons in Catholicism literally, she makes it her calling to “save” the perpetrator. As divine vocation mixes with raging hormones, a triangle of devilish desire is formed. Even more so than her other films, La niña santa revolves around the perception of the senses—touching, feeling, smelling, and especially hearing—bringing out the haptic element of a cinema that radically questions the primacy of the visual and that insists on the multisensory embodiment of culture. The theremin, an instrument that is played by not touching it, and the music of which has been used in many classic US horror films, becomes the film’s loaded symbol for proper and improper touching, bringing together the illicit, the uncanny and the supernatural. Print courtesy Warner Bros.

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Sunday April 7 at 4pm

Zama

Directed by Lucrecia Martel. With Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele
Argentina/Brazil/Spain/Dominican Republic/ France/Netherlands/Mexico/Switzerland/Portugal/ Lebanon 2017, DCP, color, 115 min. Spanish with English subtitles

A sensational critical success, Zama marks Lucrecia Martel’s triumphant return to the screen after a long hiatus. Set on the outer frontiers of the Spanish Empire during the last decade of the 18th century, Zama pushes traditional notions of a colonial adventure tale to its parodic limits. The film follows the plight of Don Diego de Zama, a creole magistrate—a Spaniard born in the Americas and considered a second-class citizen—in the service of the Spanish crown. Resentful of his demotion to the provinces, he yearns for his transfer to the city of Lerma, where his wife and family live, and where he hopes to escape the deadening routine of his assignment. Fueled by boredom and desire, Zama woos a Spanish noblewoman neglected by her husband, but realizes too late that she is only toying with him. Unable to set any plot in motion other than that of his own destruction, Zama waits and waits…

Propelled by highly elliptic storytelling and featuring a striking color scheme as well as an extraordinary soundscape, Zama is a mixture of existential drama and Kafkaesque nightmare, constantly undercut by an ever-so-slight ironic tone. The film provides a startling portrayal of the conceits of empire and the paradoxes it breeds, carefully eschewing genre-driven formulas and relying on fantasy and imagination, sometimes to an outrageous degree, to re-envision the colonial past. DCP courtesy Strand Releasing.

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