Lucrecia Martel

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )

7.0 La Cienaga/ The Swamp (2001)
7.2 La Nina Santa/ The Holy Girl (2004)
7.4 La Mujer Sin Cabeza/ Headless Woman (2008)
7.2 Zama (2017)

Lucrecia Martel (Argentina, 1966)

La Cienega/ The Swamp (2001) is a confused, cryptic portrait of two related families, one that lives in an urban world and the other one that lives in an isolated and untamed jungle; the former a normal couple with ordinary children, the latter a neurotic couple with troubled teenagers; but the former lives in a small apartment whereas the latter lives in a large villa with a swimming pool and virtually infinite land. The rather uneventful documentary-style reportage of their lives takes place while the country is fascinated by a medieval-style miracle. Too many metaphors remain unexplained.

A close-up in vivid colors of glass wines, middle aged people by the pool. A girl, Momi, tells her sister Veronica that she thanks god for their Indian servant Isabel. The storm catches the people by the pool. Children with guns and dogs hunt in the jungle and stumble into a cow that is sinking in quicksands. Momi is sad that their mother wants to fire Isabel, suspected of stealing from the house. Their mother Mecha, one of the people drinking by the pool, collapses by the pool and cuts herself with glass shards. Her husband looks indifferent. Only the girls and Isabel rush to help her. Mecha is losing a lot of blood. The girls want to take her to hospital even if they don't have a driving license. It starts raining. Elsewhere, a woman with children, Tali, married to Rafael, gets the news: it's Mecha's sister, who lives in the city. The children are celebrating the beginning of carnival. Tali's little child Luchi cuts himself and needs to go to the hospital too to get some stitches. Veronica, who is now staying with Tali, calls her brother Jose, who lives in the capital with his older lover Mercedes. Jose decides to visit his mother at the villa. Tali talks about Mecha's unhappy marriage to Gregorio. They are both alcoholics, and Gregorio has cheated on Mecha, apparently with the same woman who is now Jose's lover. Meanwhile the tv keeps broadcasting live from a town where a girl has seen the Virgin Mary. Jose arrives at the villa and jokes with his sister, calling Momi "dirty". Jose too is hostile to the Indian servant Isabel. Tali's family arrives at the country villa. The tv is still talking about the apparition of the Virgin Mary. Momi is upset that Isabel is packing to go visit her sister. The children with guns are surrounding the cow dead in the quicksand. Luchi walks towards the cow while the older boys aim their guns at the animal. Tali and Mecha drink and gossip. Tali's friend Teresa went to see the Virgin and was transformed. Mecha and Tali plan a shopping trip to Bolivia. During a fight in a nightclub Jose is disfigured. Luchi loses a tooth, which his mother hands on a wall. Tali and her child Luchi visit Rafael in the noisy factory where he works. The kids play in the swamp, the boys with machetes trying to catch fish. It starts raining. One throws Isa in the water. Gregorio wanders around the house, always drunk. Vero is always fighting childishly with her brother Jose, possibly jealous of Mercedes. Mecha tells Gregorio she wants him to move into Isa's room. Occasionally the two families occupy the same space and chaotic scenes ensue. Mecha watches the tv reportage on the girl who sees the Virgin Mary. Mercedes calls for Jose and Jose tells Mecha he has to go back to the capital. Tali loads the children in the car to go shopping in Bolivia but realizes that Rafael has already bought everything. Momi and Isa in bed together as usual: Momi is morbidly attached to Isa. Isa is sulky and mute. Veronica is still staying with Tali's family. Isa tells Mecha that she has decided to quit the job and to move with her sister. Now Mecha is upset that she'll have to find a new servant. In her room Isa cries in front of Momi, giving no explanation why she decided to leave. Luchi climbs a ladder to check the dog on the other side of the wall and falls, remaining unconscious on the floor, while nobody is home. Jose learns of the accident while he is back with Mercedes. Momi returns home: she has been where the Virgin Mary has been appearing (has she been praying for Luchi?) She lies by the pool and stares at the mountains covered with jungle.

La Nina Santa/ The Holy Girl (2004) is an enigmatic allegory that, quite literally, does not have an ending. The entire film is set mostly inside a hotel, run by a brother and sister who are obviously very close, and both divorced, and in which young girls are becoming sexually active or at least sexually curious. It is also the place where a religious young woman gathers her younger followers to study the scriptures and prepare from a call from God. Some of the (in)action takes place among the female workers of the hotel. The psychology underlying the story is largely told using long close-ups of faces. What the close-ups do is to expose not only the moral doubts but also the fundamental loneliness of all of these people. There is a constant reference to "unlawful" erotic attractions from pedophilia to incest. But the main theme of desire is matched by a complementary them of shame, as both young and old characters are repelled by what they do. The film is deliberately left without an ending. It basically ends precisely where most films would reach a climax.

A young female instructor leads a Catholic study group of teenagers. Among them are Amalia and Josefina, who are as close as sisters. The instructor sings a religious anthem and is moved to tears. Instead Josefina is gossiping that the same saint has been seen kissing a much older man.
Amalia is the daughter of Helena, a still attractive middle-aged divorced woman who is disturbed when she hears that her ex-husband is about to have twins: she is angry that she has to hear the news from gossipers instead than from the ex-husband himself. Amalia is also the co-owner of the hotel where the most of the action takes place. Amalia grew up in that hotel, and so did her mother. Her brother Freddy is welcoming a group of doctors, who are coming for a conference that will also take place in the hotel's meeting rooms. Freddy knows several of the doctors, which means that similar meetings have taken place before. One of them is Jano, a bespectacled somber married man with children, who has come to talk about the relationship between doctor and patient. He is told that he has to share a room with a colleague for just one night, and that colleague has a reputation for partying and sex.
Amalia stops in the street to watch the demonstration of a theremin. Jano approaches from behind and gropes her. It is just one second. He leaves the scene immediately. That night Helena sleeps in the same bed with her daughter Amalia and talks with her about the step-brothers Amalia is going to have. Amalia does not mention that she was sexually molested.
The main amenity of the hotel is a humble swimming pool. Helena and Amalia go to the swimming pool while Jano is there: Jano admires Helena's body (she used to be a swimming champion) and notices that she keeps touching her ear. Amalia keeps reciting a prayer that she wants to memorize. That night even Freddy sleeps with Helena and Amalia in the same bed. Brother and sister obviously share a lot of intimacy.
Josefina and Amalia play together all the time, mostly games that revolve around Catholic prayers and mystique. Amalia does not mention being molested.
Josefina finds her cousin Julian in their granma's bed. They fight a bit and then he tries to have sex with her. She tells him that she wants to remain a virgin till marriage, but then turns the other way and lets him do it. She doesn't want to see him while he enters her and tells him not to talk.
Freddy introduces Helena to Jano and Helena is immediately fascinated, but the women of the hotel inform her that he is married. Helena, still angry that her husband Manuel didn't tell her in person about the pregnancy, refuses to take his repeated calls and his wife's calls. Helena's brother Freddy has lost his children when his Chilean wife divorced him and took them with her.
Helena, Josefina and another girl get off the bus in the middle of nowhere and play near a place where a gruesome car accident took place (a couple died but their baby survived). Amalia and Josefina keep attending the meetings with the Catholic instructor, and Josefina always whispers something nasty about the virginal instructor to Amalia (basically telling Amalia what she, Josefina, is doing with her cousin).
The trio of friends are studying at Josefina's place while her mom is chatting with a friend when a naked man falls from the second floor, perfectly unharmed. Back home Amalia relates the story to her mother arguing that it must be a miracle.
Helena invites Jano to dine with her and her daughter. Luckily for him Amalia does not show up. They flirt politely and she tells him that she hears a whistling sound inside her ear. She knows it is typical of swimmers. He knows it is tinnitus. The conference is supposed to end with a dramatization of the relationship between doctor and patient, and Jano proposes Helena as the patient. Helena is happy to comply.
Amalia returns to the shop that is demonstrating the Theremin and puts herself right in front of Jano, who, again, sexually leans on her butt. When she turns to face him, he leaves in a hurry. Now, however, it is not Jano to be obsessed with Amalia, but Amalia to be obsessed with Jano. He feels her eyes on him at the swimming pool and later gets mad at her because she's following him. The result is that a distressed Amalia tells Josefina what happened. Amalia thinks that saving the married man is her divine mission and begs Josefina not to tell anyone.
Her mother Helena, meanwhile, rehearses the scene with Jano that will close the conference. Jano is finally introduced to Amalia and he is shocked to find out that she's the daughter of Helena. Amalia masturbates in bed.
Jano avoids Helena at breakfast because she's sitting with Amalia. Josefina guesses that Jano is the man who molested Amalia. Freddy has to work around the departure of a doctor, the lascivious one who shared the room with Jano on the first night. Upon hearing the story of how this doctor slept with a young girl and had to abandon the conference, and probably ruined his career, Jano leaves the table without saying a word. Helena is puzzled by this rude action, but figures that he reciprocates her feelings and he must be torn because her and his family. The situation is further complicated by the fact that Jano's family is about to join him for the final day of the conference. Hearing this suddenly makes Freddy wish that his children were there with him to help him in his job and he tries in vain to call them. Brother and sister are obviously very close as they sit on the bed and chat like a married couple.
While they are studying and chatting, Josefina kisses Amalia on the mouth. Amalia gets a fever and Helena calls Jano, of all people, to visit her.
Josefina has sex again with her cousin in their granma's room, and, again, does not face him and tells him not to talk. This time their parents catch her in bed together. To distact them from the obvious truth, she tells them about Amalia molested by the doctor. They obviously decide to talk to Helena. Just then Jano's family has arrived. Amalia walks into Jano's room and he tells her that he has decided to come clean with her mother Helena. When Jano walks into Helena's room and can't find the words, Helena thinks that he is there to confess his love for her (Helena) and kisses him passionately. He returns the kiss but then walks away, and she thinks because of his family.
It's the last day of the conference. There are already rumors that a doctor will be accused of molesting a girl. Helena and Jano are called on stage for the final act of the conference, the dramatization. Meanwhile, Amalia and Josefina are merrily swimming in the pool.
The film ends without showing us what happens during the dramatization, whether the doctor is exposed, how his family reacts, and what happens to Amalia.

La Mujer Sin Cabeza/ Headless Woman (2008) is less atmospheric and more narrative than the previous films, and certainly a lot more "complete" than than Nina Santa. Martel excels at an elliptic way of getting the viewer into the head of the protagonist: all the director does is show a close-up of the protagonist after some half-truth has been revealed, and the viewer inevitably feels that the protagonist is thinking and the viewer can easily guess what the protagonist is thinking based on what just happened. At the same time Martel can do the exact opposite: the action may be happening in the background, barely shown by the camera, sometimes even blurred. Martel also seems to desperately need movement, a fact well demonstrated in the nonstop, swirling (and confusing) changes of environment. These techniques are employed to depict the comfortable but empty life of the upper class; so meaningless that the morbid love of a lesbian niece is the only thing that makes a middle-aged wife smile. That languid lifestyle of the upper-class is contrasted with the humble hectic lifestyle of the poor, just like the children of the rich are kept on leash while the children of the poor play in canals and dirt roads.

Children are playing in a canal near a dirt road and one has a dog. Vero, a wealthy elegant middle-aged woman, leaves a party and then starts driving on that dirt road. When her cell phone rings, she tries to reach for it and looks behind instead of looking at the road. A thud and a bump. She stops the car. We don't know what happened but we guess some kind of accident. She doesn't get out of the car, she simply tries to breath normally. Prominent on the side window of the car are the handprints of a child, presumably one of the children of her relatives who were playing around her car. When she has calmed down, she starts driving again. Then we see what she is leaving behind on the road: a dead person (one of those children?) or a dog. A little later, after regaining her composure, she pulls over to check the damage to her car. It is starting to rain.
She drives to the hospital and gets checked for possible head injuries (she hit her head against the steering wheel). When asked to sign a form, she disappears. One of the nurses recognizes her as the sister of a doctor. She is mostly silent.
She is helped by a handsome male cousin, Juan Manuel, and spends some hours with him in a hotel room. She pulls the man against her in a sexual embrace, and initially it looks like he is reluctant. They make love but with little passion. he takes her home. She avoids her husband, Marcos, who apologizes that he got stuck in the rain. She is still mostly silent. She looks disoriented in her own home.
She takes a taxi to work. She is a dentist. Her patients are waiting. She smiles but doesn't seem to know what to do with them. She excuses herself and returns home. People keep talking about the storm that caused some flooding. Her sister-in-law Josefina, a busy mother of two, mentions casually that many in their family have ended up crazy. She watches the video of her own wedding with her aunt Lala, who is losing her memory. When her husband asks about the dent in her car, she tells him that a dog ran in front of it. She stares at children and dogs without uttering a word. Finally, out of the blue, she calmly tells Marcos that she killed someone on the road. They drive to that road in the middle of the night but only find the carcass of a dog. Marcos tries to convince her that she only hit a dog. The canal where the children were playing is now full of water. Marcos asks Juanma to join them, and Juanma is about to confess his sexual encounter with Vero when Vero repeats her statement: she killed someone. It sounds like the only thing she is interested in saying because she hardly ever says anything else. Marcos explains that he thinks it was only a dog. Juanma, after talking to a friend in the police, is certain that there was no hit and run accident reported that day. Nonetheless, Vero behaves like she is certain that she ran over a person, not just a dog. She spends a day with Josefina and her children Zula and Candita. The latter, who is recovering from hepathitis, seems to be her favorite, or, at least, the only one who can make her smile and chat. While they are driving, a girl on motorcycle drives to the right of their car and smiles at Candita, who watches amused. On the way back, they take the dirt road by the canal and see a number of police cars and construction trucks. Apparently a body has clogged the canal, although they are not sure whether it's an animal or a person. For a few seconds we stare at Vero's face and we know that she's making the same inference that we are making: that maybe the floods washed the person she killed into the canal. Then they visit the old aunt, who mutters to Vero that the house is full of the dead.
While the two families (Vero, Marcos and Josefina's family) are at a swimming pool, the two women notice the two men chatting after a phone call and walking out in a hurry with the excuse of meeting a friend. Later Vero also learns that her husband has taken her car. She doesn't comment on any of these events, as usual. She just observes. Her gardener finds out that there is a fountain buried under her lawn while she is reading something in the newspaper that startles her. Candita and her friend (the one who was riding the motorcycle next to their car) are playing (or flirting?) in Candita's room. Josefina interrupts them, Vero again spends more words and smiles with Candita than with anybody else so far. Incidentally, Vero tells Candita that, according to the newspaper, a boy drowned in the canal. Candita tries to kiss her erotically on the mouth and then, rejected, mentions a love letter that Vero neither replied to nor returned.
Vero drives to a poor neighborhood to pick up some pottery she ordered, but the potter cannot deliver them: his teenage assistant has disappeared (the one who drowned?) and he can't reach the attic where the boy stored the pots.
When Vero returns to the hospital to get the results of her tests, they have no record of her ever being there. Later her brother confesses that he took care of it. Is that what the men had plotted at the swimming pool?
She changes the color of her hair from blond to black. She is generous with a poor boy who drives around offering to wash cars. She buys lots of pottery from the potter. Her husband is uncomfortable but doesn't object. Maybe it's her way to deal with her sense of guilt. On the other hand, when her own daughter comes home, Vero hardly kisses her, maintaining an aristocratic detachment.
Her husband fixed the car. The family throws a party at the hotel where she stayed with Juanma. She asks the receptionist if the room had been used the night when she stayed there and, sure enough, there is no record of her ever being there: the men have taken care of erasing it. The party can go on. Whatever happened that night, it has been completely erased from reality.

The period drama Zama (2017), adapted from Antonio di Benedetto's novel "Zama" (1956), is a gallery of oneiric tableaux displayed at a slow, languid pace. The protagonist is a pathetic creature, caged in a distant post where nothing meaningful happens. The most exciting event is the robberies and murders of which people accuse a legendary bandit. His existential agony is told via a fragmented narrative that doesn't even try to provide a logical explanation for everything fragment of the plot. The focus is on the mute desperation and eventual resignation of this homeless soul. This anti-hero, accidental conquistador, is no Aguirre and no Fitzcarraldo: he just wants to go home to his wife and children, and, if possible, takes his bastard son with him.

Diego de Zama is a magistrate deployed in a Spanish colony in South America during the 18th-century. He is staring at the sea, peeps at naked native women, and waits for news from his wife. She writes occasionally about his children. He is expecting to be transferred any time soon. Until then his duties are very light. He oversees the torture of prisoners. An "Oriental" arrives carrying a load of brandy. He is accompanied by a child who speaks in riddles. Everybody is afraid of a bandit named Vicuna. He attends a party of aristocrats, also attended by the wife of a minister, Luciana, whom he is secretly courting. He is informed that the Oriental has contracted cholera. He listens to the plea of a family that descends from the original settlers. They ask for 40 "indios" to work on their farm. Zama grants them 80. A royal official sent by Spain gets angry with the decision and they get into a physical fight. Later he catches an intruder in the quarters of the innkeeper's daughter, Rita, whom he was probably trying to seduce himself. Everybody suspects the intruder was Vicuna, who is accused of anything that happens to upset or terrify people. Later Rita tells him that she was raped by an official and demands that he takes revenge on him. Rita sounds delirious, as she both demands that Zama kills the rapist and thanks Zama for already killing him. The one who is dead, however, is the Oriental, and so is his child, victims of the "plague". Zama visits Luciana: a native slave operates a giant fan for her, and a limping mute, Malemba, is her trusted servant. Malemba has bought her freedom and wants to get married, despite the deformity of her feet (caused by torture). The governor informs Zama that he is being transferred, and that he is deporting the Spanish officer who attacked Zama. Ironically, the Spanish officer is sent precisely where Zama has asked to be sent. Zama returns to Luciana's house. Malemba doesn't announce him, subtly letting him see that Luciana has a male visitor. Zama takes a stroll at the beach and watches a group of women and children. One of the women, Emilia, points out his child. The new governor is famous for his ferocity. He claims to have executed Vicuna and wears a necklace with Vicuna's ears. Zama begs him for a letter of recommendation to the king, hoping to speed up his transfer out of that godforsaken post. But the governor gets distracted when his scribe confesses that he is writing a book. The governor gets furious that a government official writes a book during work hours. Later the governor orders an inventory. All the members of government have to move their furniture outside to be counted. Fernandez the scribe offers to help Zama hide some belongings in return for Zama to read his book, but Zama keeps refusing it, even when he has to move to a humble and haunted hut where he gets feverish. The governor, instead, wants a report on the book in exchange for the letter of recommendation. Hence Zama writes a damning report that pleases the governor, and that will probably cost dearly to the poor young man who has written the book. However, the governor tells Zama that he is going to write a letter that the king will not even read: the king only reads the second letter about each subject, and the second letter won't be sent for at least one year. Zama then volunteers for the mission to capture Vicuna. Obviously some don't believe that the governor executed the right man. The group is quickly outsmarted by the indios, who steal all their horses except one, forcing them to continue on foot through the savannah and the swamp. Suddenly, one of the group steals Zama's sword and tells Zama that he is Vicuna: they are hunting someone who is in their middle. Vicuna tells him that he is not responsible for all the crimes that people attribute to him. Vicuna threatens Zama with death if he tells the others. Masqued indios capture them, take the last horse and take the men to their village. They are subjected to a mysterious ritual but somehow manage to escape. As they are wandering down the beach, Zama reveals the secret identity of Vicuna to the mission's commander, who is determined to continue until they find and capture the bandit. The mission's commander is foolish enough to try and arrest Vicuna, but the other men are all Vicuna men and they are easily overrun commander and Zama. They kill the commander but Zama is valuable: they believe that some stones stored at the barracks are jewels. Zama knows that this is a worthless lie and tells them so. He murmurs something to the extent that he doesn't want to torture them psychologically like his superiors tortured him: better give no hope. The bandits don't believe him. Vicuna severes his hands with the sword and tells him to stick his stumps in the sand to stop the bleeding. He regains consciousness in a canoe: a child is talking to him in a language that he doesn't understand and an indio is piloting the canoe through the swamp.

(Copyright © 2012 Piero Scaruffi | Terms of use )