The introduction to this screening by co-director of the festival Allison Gardner suggested that “the film is very beautiful but difficult”. Which is actually quite a good description. It is visually very fine and it sounds good too – with several songs by Los Indios Tabajaras. (This was disconcerting because I recognised the music as being from the same performers who open and close Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (HK 1990)). I learned subsequently that the original Zama novel by Antonio di Benedetto, first published in 1956, was only translated into English in 2016 and is considered as one of the great works of Argentinian literature. In Lucrecia Martel, one of Argentina’s most celebrated filmmakers. it has found a new champion for an international audience.
Diego de Zama is a corregidor (a Spanish title for an agent of the King) in the 1790s in a remote part of the Viceroyalty of the Río de la Plata in present day Paraguay. Zama feels trapped in a backwater and repeatedly asks the local Governor to write to Spain on his behalf to request a transfer. This becomes an endlessly repeated plea to the Governor who finds all kinds of excuses not to deliver. This perhaps is an indication of the ‘difficulty’ of the narrative as the process becomes something like that suffered by one of Kafka’s characters – or perhaps like Yossarian in Catch 22? “Have you written to the King?” becomes Zama’s mantra.
Zama has ‘status’ as a colonial figure (initially he appears to act as a magistrate) but no real discernible power except that conferred on a European by conquest. Martel presents the colonial world in a manner that is both terrifying and hypnotically beautiful. This is a film in which it pays to look and listen without trying too hard to find conventional film narrative cues as to what might happen next. The Kafkaesque world of the settlement in the first half of the narrative becomes the very beautiful but also terrifying world of the ‘unexplored’ territory where Zama finds himself supposedly searching for the possibly imaginary figure of a bandit/pirate. The only way I could make some kind of sense of what was happening in this second half was to draw on other similar films and stories. The closest parallel I could think of was another Argentinian film, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (Argentina 2014) in which a Danish engineer working for the Argentinian colonial forces in the 19th century becomes similarly deranged in the ‘jungles’ of Patagonia while searching for the ‘pirate’ who has kidnapped his daughter.
After the screening I found that the best way to get a handle on Zama came via this review-essay on the original novel by J. M. Coetzee. Lucretia Martel has changed some aspects in her adaptation but the essentials remain and Coetzee’s review explains quite a lot of the background. I was pleased to see that my identification of Kafkaesque features is backed up. Some of the promotional material for the film suggests that this an ‘existential drama’ but Coetzee argues for Borges and Kafka as the inspirations for the 1950s novel. The other point from the review that intrigued me is the reference to Zama as a Creole character. From a UK perspective this can sometimes mean a mixed race person, but here it means that although Zama is ‘European’, he was born in the Americas and his status is therefore between the indigenous people and those born in Spain. He has relationships with indigenous women and also seeks out Spanish women, one of whom is played by Lola Dueñas. In British colonial terms he seems to have ‘gone native’. Spanish colonialism was perhaps less rigid – though no less harmful. Also important is the new ‘division’ in the colony between the new metropolitan centre, Buenos Aires and the ‘marginal’ colonial outposts.
I’m not sure how Zama will sell in the UK. It is due for release by New Wave, an excellent independent distributor, on May 25th. This is a film that is backed by many major figures in Hispanic and Latin American cinema. Lola Dueñas and Daniel Giménez Cacho (Spanish and Mexican respectively) have both worked for Pedro Almodóvar’s company El Deseo which is a production partner. Leading actors from Argentina and Brazil are in the cast and executive producers include Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna. But yes – it is a difficult film. I hope audiences are willing to grapple with it and experience its splendours as a piece of filmmaking and a genuine attempt to tell us something about the history of Latin America. I look forward to exploring the film later on DVD but please do go and see it in the cinema if you get the chance. It’s one of the best films I’ve seen this year so far.
I did not think that this was a great year for new releases. There were some very fine films, though often one had to seek them out.
I thought that the Palestinian film 3000 Nights / 3000 Layla (2015) was a powerful portrait of the effects of occupation.
Certain Women (2016) was another fine film from Kelly Reichardt with four excellent performances.
I am Not Your Negro (2016) was a very good documentary though I thought it was weakened by not directly addressing James Baldwin’s homosexuality.
After the Storm / Umi yori mo mada fukaku (2015) was another fine family drama from Kore-eda Hirokazu.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan patriotic epic, is here in its 70mm/IMAX version: a true cinematic experience.
Sally Potter’s The Party was one of the wittiest films of the year, standing out from some of the more heavy-handed satires.
Happy End was typical of Michael Haneke and of equal quality to his earlier films.
And Mountains May Depart (2015) was a distinctive but finely made Chinese drama.
Praise for Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and for Sallie Hawkins in Maudie (2016).
The year was improved by quite few classics re-exhibited and/or in Festival programmes. However, some of these were transferred to digital formats and that is a lottery for viewers. So I seek out those on 35mm prints.
Odd Obsession / Kagi (Japan, 1959] was a discovery, a sardonic family drama from Ichikawa Kon.
Humanity and Paper Balloons / Ninjô kami fûsen, directed by Yamanaka Sadao in 1937, was a film I knew of but only now had the opportunity of seeing: it has one of the great endings in world cinema.
West Indies (1979) is Med Hondo’s exhilarating take on slavery, the African Diaspora and European racism.
And one film that transferred to digital with such care and attention that it retained its cinematic qualities was The Bride of Glomdal / Glomdalsbruden, directed in 1926 by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
I was fortunate to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky / Aleksandr Nevskiy (USSR, 1938) in a nitrate print which gave a luminous edge to the famous ‘battle on the ice’ sequence’.
At the opposite end of the scale there were a number of filmic duds but the title that seemed the most interminable was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Interesting directors from national cinemas tend to lose that interest when they move into English-language International co-productions.
The wooden spoon goes to The Lost City of Z (2016). It was a rare 4K DCP distribution but the files that I saw included digital break-up and colour distortion. Friends had the same problem with different exhibitors. But the distributor Studio-Canal, declined an explanation for this.
But equally reprehensible is whoever controls the policy at the BFI of access to archive prints. I saw both Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (USSR 1925) and The End of St. Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (USSR 1927) in 35mm prints with excellent musical accompaniments, but the prints were copies of sound transfers rather than the proper silent prints with the correct frame rate and framing. Lenin’s adage about cinema clearly falls on death ears despite the Centenary of ‘The Great October Revolution’.
Welcome to 2017 in which we celebrate the centenary of the Great October Revolution. One film that both recorded and dramatised that shock was Sergei Eisenstein’s film of the historic event, Oktyabr (Ten Days That Shook the World 1928).
Other key films from the Soviet Montage Movement include
The New Babylon (Novyy Vavilon 1929) directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. A powerful dramatisation of the historic Paris Commune of 1871: a forerunner for the October Revolution.
Mother (Mat 1926) directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin. Set during the Russian Revolution of 1905 and based on the 1906 novel ‘The Mother’ by Maxim Gorky.
The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (Padenie dinastii Romanovykh 1927) a seminal compilation documentary written and directed by Esfir Shub recording the years from the 300th anniversary of the Romanov imperial reign to its demise in 1917.
The Girl with a Hatbox (Devushka s korobkoy 1927) directed by Boris Barnet and starring Anna Sten. The film satirises the ‘Nepmen’, entrepreneurs who were allowed to conduct commercial business during the New Economic Policy of the 1920s.
Bed and Sofa (Tretya meshchanskaya 1927) directed by Abram Room and finding comedy in the strains experienced as the Socialist Republics were transformed.
Man with a Movie Camera (Chelovek s kino-apparatom 1929) directed by Dziga Vertov and both celebrating and analysing Soviet Construction.
Old and New (Staroye i novoye 1929) directed by Sergei Eisenstein and the transformation of a village under collectivisation.
Earth (Zemlya 1930) directed by Aleksandr Dovzhenko and set during the collectivisation programme with resistance from the rich Kulaks [wealthy peasants].
Enthusiasm (Entuziazm / Simfoniya Donbassa 1931) directed by Dziga Vertov. A film celebrating Socialist Construction in the Don Valley of the Ukraine. Needs to be seen and heard with its original soundtrack rather than with live music.
This was not the greatest year for new releases but there were some fine and powerful dramas and documentaries. One positive aspect was that nearly half the films that I saw at a cinema were on 35mm. Less positive was for D-Cinema; only 4 or 5 DCPs were in 4K; this despite distributors bragging on a many occasions that the source was a ‘4K restoration’.
Our Little Sister / Umimachi Diary (Japan 2015).
This was a sheer delight: one of the best films of the decade.
Dheepan (France 2015).
A fine and socially conscious drama, combining realism and imagination.
Son of Saul / Saul fia (Hungary 2015).
Rarely have I experienced such intense drama: a European Holocaust film with real substance.
Taxi / Taxi Teheran (Iran 2015).
Simple, actual, funny and fascinating.
Victoria (Germany 2015).
Impressive use of digital technology and the style completely fitted the drama.
The Pearl Button / El botón de náca (Chile, France, Spain, Switzerland 2015).
Visually superb and politically sharp.
I enjoyed Amy Adams in the fine science fiction film Arrival (Canada, USA 2016). And Nellie’s cross-gender performance as Marvin in Paterson (USA 2016) certainly deserved the Palm Dog: unfortunately posthumously.
A fine restoration in 35mm:
Kean / Edmund Kean, Prince Among Lover / Kean ou Désordre et Génie, France 1924
Restored by the Cinémathèque française with tinting restored by Náradni filmavŷ archiv.
An impressive preservation of a film print:
By the Gosfilmofond of a nitrate print of Ramona (USA 1927) and screened at the George Eastman Nitrate Weekend.
Two great discoveries of the Year:
A Japanese Tragedy / Nihon no higeki (1953)
At the Sheffield Showrooms, a rare Japanese film drama.
Laughter in Hell, USA 1933.
Effectively a pre-code movie and the most intense and brutal chain-gang film that I have seen.
For the Parkway Cinema in Barnsley for screening The Hateful Eight (USA 2015) from a 70mm print in the full 2.76:1 ratio.
The Cinémathèque française deserve a further commendation: a friend told me that they declined to licence a theatrical screening of a title sourcing digital video.
The worst film:
London Has Fallen (UK, USA, Bulgaria 2016).
In my defence there was a dearth of interesting titles that week.