Right from the start, Lucrecia Martel sensed that the core of her poetics didn't lie in perfect frames and a masterful use of lighting, or even in her clear command of narrative but, rather, in the not-yet-codified aural nature of cinema.
As it happens in philosophy, and in everyday speech, film vocabulary teems with visual terms and there are more than enough words to identify the way an image operates. The same doesn't apply when it comes to sounds. Filmmakers are excessively attracted towards the light and they assume their art is defined by the modalities of vision. However, there are a few who are suspicious of such conceited supremacy of the image and feel that cinema's complete power happens only when sound — a debased element right from the start, due to an unfortunate technical impossibility — can counter the certitude of visual representation.
Martel belongs to that minority tribe of filmmakers who understand sound as a matter that pertains not only to technicians and machines, or as a mere naturalistic complement to images. Sound represents a demanding ontology, because it is a sign of reality less prone to fall under the dominion of language; or, at least, it is the least stable expression of the world and its outward appearances. Images are fixated, sounds propagate. That is why any filmmaker able to use this dialectic relation is also able to intensify the expressive possibilities of cinema. And, within this field, Martel shines as only a few can. Martel sees through her ears.
There's nothing more extraordinary than the opening five minutes in "La ciénaga", in which a whole poetics is displayed with phenomenal conviction; a thunder is heard as we see a panoramic shot of the mountains in the province of Salta, then, a long shot with depth of field shows a bunch of red peppers in contrast to the mountainous background, until we read the opening credits.
Immediately after that, the visual field is overtaken by several empty glasses and a hand holding a wine bottle, pouring its contents over a cup until it is filled. In terms of the sound, the pouring of the wine is completely in the foreground, together with the sounds of ice, as they are stirred by the hand holding the cup. The whole scene takes place by a swimming pool, a symbolic trope often seen in Martel's films — swimming pools bring together both the putrefaction of stale water and the vitality of this vital and irreplaceable liquid. We see many people in the shot, but none of them is individualized. These are depersonalized bodies, as if we were watching zombies. Suddenly, the men and women drag the deck chairs they were lying, on and the sound becomes more powerful and autonomous, almost unbearable.
After such a magnificent sound orchestration, which conveys the ominous quality of the world, the film's title appears and, then, the first sequence revolves around a girl uttering a prayer. The content of the prayer itself is less relevant than the intimate, musical quality of its sound. Just before the girl, we see two shots of the room in which she lies. The sound of her prayer is replaced with sounds of a storm and the deck chairs as they are dragged, scratching against the floor. This is almost imperceptible, but the substitution is deliberate, as if it were a crossfading of sound.
This prodigious opening encapsulates the totality of Martel's filmic work; a poetics pinned by sound backgrounds in tune with the emotional state of her characters, who are always part of a well-delimited community which is microscopically filmed. The sound background becomes an ontological cushion for the whole film, an area upon which the narrative rests. And then, the background takes as its model that gradual abandonment of consciousness just before the girl falls asleep. Perhaps, this has to do with the own memories of the director, with childhood moments just before taking a nap; smothering-hot afternoons in which a little girl falls asleep. And just before she dozes off, with her eyes closed, the sound intensifies; voices and noises become independent from their referents and the world loses some of its order. This is Martel's poetic principle — to represent the world from the point of view of estranged consciousness, closer to the sensibility of dreams. Isn't her film "La niña santa" a magnificent expanded dream? Wouldn't it be possible to say the same about her other feature, "La mujer sin cabeza"? And the same can be said, too, about some of her short films, such as "Rey muerto" and "Peces". Martel's stories are in a way similar to the stories told to someone just before he or she falls asleep.
Martel's subjects are precise; in "La ciénaga" she is interested only in portraying, impiously, the decadence of a social (upper) class. The apprehensive spiritual condition of the upper-class rich from Salta stands in contrast to the compliant servants who keep their households in order. A great deal of the tension in the story has to do with the ways in which household owners relate to their service staff. The plot revolves around a series of brief anecdotes related to everyday life in a confined space, in which all characters are crowded together.
And although desire between people who are different from each other is one of "La ciénaga's" subplots, in "La niña santa" is the central theme, presented as an examination of a desire pierced by a deliriant religious discourse, against the background of a medical congress at a hotel in Salta. Here, the focus is not on relationships between different social classes but on intergenerational interactions and the ways in which desire is experienced. And — just as in her previous film — there is not a single, specific protagonist; rather, what is shown is a totality, a movement marked by Christian rhetoric at a scientific event.
And while "La ciénaga" is more of a sociological film, and "La niña santa" a theological — and perhaps even, secretly, psychological — one; in "La mujer sin cabeza" issues have more to do with morality and politics. At the beginning, a car crash — heard but not seen — defines all the behaviors and actions of the characters in this unorthodox thriller, in which class privileges become relevant once again. An although in this film there actually is a presumed protagonist, whom we see struggling with the demands presented to her by her conscience, what really matters here is to guess the modus operandi of the members of the protagonist's social class, which remain offscreen although have an undeniable influence over the plot. Power is not seen in its practice, but in its effects.
Something has to be said, too, about Zama, a film that we've been waiting for, for many years. It appears to be a period film, an adaptation from a literary work, with a plot that diverts from Martel's usual universe of reference in Salta. Not many have seen the film and we know almost nothing about it. The trailer suggests a new stage in Martel's filmography. Almost ten years have passed since her last feature. The premiere is close at hand and, then, we'll have to keep on thinking about the work of a unique director who is always willing to take risks. That's why Martel's rebirth has the world of cinema in suspense — she is a tremendous filmmaker.
Thr trophy was funded by Jerzy Armata, Barbara Hollender, Michal Oleszczyk, Krzysztof Kwiatkowski and Ola Salwa.