Zama, Argentina, Spain , France, Mexico, The Netherlands, Monaco, Portugal, USA, Lebanon, Britain, Dominican Republic, 2017

Opens today, Friday, and on Sunday and Wednesday 6 p.m.

This is the new film by Argentinian film-maker Lucrecia Martel. Her earlier films, La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl  / La niña santa (2004) and The Headless Woman  / La mujer sin cabeza (2008) were fine examples of C21st Latin-American cinema. These three features were all set in a contemporary world and dramatised some of the contradictions in her home country. This new film is a literary adaptations set in the C18th and part of the Spanish colonial empire. The film was shot on digital formats and critics have rightly praised the visual style and sound design of the film.

The source of this story is a novel from 1956 of the same tiltle by Antonio Di Benedetto, [only translated into English in 2016]. Set in 1790 somehere on  a river dividing Argentina from Paraguay, the protagonist is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) a magistrate [‘corregidor’ government official}. We first see him in the film [as in the poster] staring out across the river, symbolising his frustrated hopes of a move: away and upward socially and economically. The book offered a subjective narrative and the film translates this into a hallucinatory telling that is full of ambiguities. The story takes in three different periods of Zama’s sojourn in this provincial city, best identified by the changing face [i.e. actor] of the governor under whom he serves. The first two periods focus on his recurring requests for a transfer and the contradictions of his work, a sort of C18th ‘Catch 22’. His social position is problematic because he is an ‘Americano’, born in this ‘new world’ where colonial characters from Europe control society and power. His ambiguous status is reflected in his attempt at sexual conquest, both amongst the European and the indigenous women.  These first two thirds of the film have a surreal quality with elliptical editing and moments of bizarre humour when, for examples, animals cross the frontier between the world of nature and that of human society.

The final third  involves Zama enrolled in an expedition to hunt down a local bandit, Vicuňa Porto / Gaspar (Matheus Nachtegaele) who could be as much myth as a criminal disruption. Now the film takes on aspects of horror: something Martell also essayed in her very fine The Headless Woman. The first two thirds of the film have some of the absurdist quality found in ‘magical realism’ There are the recurring and ineffectual social forays of the protagonist; writing by the characters that seems completely fruitless; and odd acts of sexuality and violence that seem totally arbitrary. The last part moves into the world of the exploration: a trope in Latin American fiction and film where the horrors that beset the Europeans and their helpers betoken the ultimate futility of their search.

Martell has scripted and directed the adaptation with genuine skill. Her cinematographer, Rui Poças, has produced a fine range of visual imagery, some in stark brightness, some in a pattern of lights and shadow. And the sound design by Guido Berenblum is really distinctive. using internal and non-simultaneous sound. Both have used digital formats which work well to produce a rather flat colour surface and aural depth that suits the non-realist form.

Her last film, The Headless Woman , was a terrific and successful melodrama dramatising class and corruption. So why have we had to wait nearly a decade for her latest film. Part of the answer lies in the number of territories where she has found funding. Clearly there has not been a rush of investors to support her work; the number of companies involved in the production takes up four columns in the Sight & Sound credits.. One is reminded of the comment of Osmane Sèmbene, comparing putting a film together as like making up a cigarette out of butt ends in the street.

The novel is, apparently, dense but only runs to 200 pages. if you have to wait to read a copy, which sound really worthwhile, then there is a fine review by J. M. Coetzee in ‘The New York Review of Books’ . This sets out the main features of the plot but also, importantly, give a sense of the tone and characterisations of the novel. It seems that Martell has been relatively faithful to the book but some material has been excised and some given greater emphasis.

At least the film is now here. It should be a treat, especially as there is a scarcity [at least in West Yorkshire] of films from this great cinematic continent. Sight and Sound have both a review and a specialised article on the film. There is also a transcript of an interview with Lucrecia Martell, excellent reading.

I found the film challenging at first. It took about half-an-hour before I felt clear about how the narrative worked. But from then on I followed the film fine. This included some colonial Spanish terms retained in the English sub-titles. So there is ‘corregidor’ and also ‘encomienda’ which referred to the practice of awarding control of indigenous people to colonialists.

There is one remaining screening this coming Wednesday [June 20th] and at present no sign of further screenings in the Leeds/Bradford area. Do not miss this film or, at some future date, you will be embarrassed during a discussion of the outstanding Latin-American films from the first two decades of the C21st.

Neruda, Chile, France, Argentina, Spain, USA 2016

Daily from Friday April 14th until Thursday April 20th

[but only in late evening performances]

The film is set in 1948 as the famous Chilean poet and Communist Party Member [Partido Comunista de Chile] Pablo Neruda (Luis Gnecco) goes into hiding and exile when the Party is outlawed. The subject is immediately interesting and the film’s director, Pablo Larrain, has already achieved an enviable reputation for his earlier films.

His last film, Jackie (2016) was both highly praised and relatively  successful. The earlier Tony Manero (2008) and then The Club (2015) were stylish exercises that used noir techniques to offer stories that commented obliquely on Chile’s fractured past. Both the latter films enjoyed the talented cinematography of Sergio Armstrong. He is back on Neruda and the film also offers the acting skills of Gael Garcia Bernal.

My reservations are that I am not certain that Larrain will deal effectively with the politics of the work of the great revolutionary poet. Tony Manero and The Club were effective partly because they used less obviously political stories as metaphors. In Jackie, dealing directly with the Kennedy legend, its myths were uncritically revisited. And Larrain’s other film, No (2012) dealing with the 1988 Referendum on the Junta in Chile, presented a one-sided view of the organised working class in that country, effectively ignoring the Socialist Party of Chile [Partido Socialista de Chile].

It will be interesting to compare the portrait of the great poet with that in Michael Radford’s Il Postino: The Postman (1994 with Pilippe Noiret). Even if the film fails to do justice to Neruda’s politics it is most likely to be an absorbing and well produced film.

The Pearl Button / El botón de nácar Chile 2016

Wednesday 6th April at 4.00 p.m. and on Thursday 7th April at 6.15 p.m.


This is the new film by Patricio Guzman. His most famous work is The Battle of Chile. This epic documentary was made in exile in Cuba in three parts. These are La batalla de Chile: La lucha de un pueblo sin armas – Primera parte: La insurreción de la burguesía 1975: Segunda parte: El golpe de estado 1976: Tercera parte: El poder popular 1979. The last time it was shown locally was five or more years ago in one of the screenings ‘tween’ festivals and then I think only Part 1 and Part 2. There were 35mm prints in the UK [Metro Pictures], if they are still here it would be good to have a fresh opportunity to see what Time Out praised as “among the best documentaries ever made”.

Guzman’s new film is a companion piece to the earlier Nostalgia for Light / Nostalgia de la luz 2010. Both films combine a sort of poetic essay with a documentary treatment. The earlier film was mainly set in Chile’s northern and arid Atacama desert. In part it followed widows and family members of the ‘disappeared’ under the Military Junta looking for traces of their lost ones. The new film is set in the southern Patagonian region and initially addresses the genocidal treatment of the indigenous Indians but then draws parallels with victims of the Junta who perished in the same region. The button of the title is one of the links between these groups.

In both films Guzman uses a physiological and cosmological metaphor to bind the issues together. In this film it is water: bought to earth originally by comets and one of the major features of the Patagonian region: the others are mountains and glaciers. Both films are full of impressive visuals and enjoy distinctive sound designs. I thought the metaphoric aspects worked better in this film. It also has a freer form which allows/demands that the audience think through the interaction.

The film is in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. It also uses black and white archival stills and film. My only reservation was that the film follows that increasing and problematic habit of reframing early film: not exactly respectful for the predecessors of today’s’ filmmakers.

The film is showing on Wednesday and Thursday. The Wednesday screening will also offer one of the short films from The Artist Cinema 2016: El Helicóptero, which turns out to have an intriguing link with the feature, [Thursday’s may also screen this short film]. Thursday’s screening is followed by a recording of a Q&A with the film director.