The news that Lucrecia Martel was working on a new feature film — less than three years after premiering 2017’s “Zama” — was excitedly received by world cinema buffs: nine long years had separated “Zama” and her previous feature, “The Headless Woman,” and admirers of the enigmatic Argentine auteur had no reason to expect a suddenly increased work rate.
“Zama,” after all, was a film that reflected its lengthy gestation and repeated delays in its hypnotic style. A scathing post-colonial portrait of a Spanish magistrate in a remote South American colony, spiraling into madness as he awaits a reassignment that never seems to come, the film’s feverish, intoxicated atmospherics bespoke a filmmaker fully immersed and entangled in her own creative process: the type of cinema Lucrecia Martel makes is not conceived, much less made, overnight.
Perhaps, then, Marcel will take the pandemic-induced limbo in which the film industry finds itself more in her stride than most. Audiences, meanwhile, must summon up their pre-”Zama” patience for “Chocobar,” Martel’s first feature-length documentary, early production of which was halted at a critical stage in the spring. One of the 10 international works in progress competing in this year’s unique The Films After Tomorrow competition at Locarno, the Argentine-American-Danish-Mexican co-production represents the culmination of a decade of research into the 2009 murder of Argentine human rights activist Javier Chocobar.
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A standard-issue nonfiction procedural is clearly not on the cards: Martel herself describes the project as a “hybrid, creative documentary.” Anything conventional would come as a surprise to long-term followers of the 53-year-old’s career, which began — after youthful academic excursions into science, advertising, animation, and eventually film school — with a flurry of short films in the late 1980s and early 1990s, one of them landing in “Historias Breves,” the influential portmanteau film that effectively minted the New Argentine Cinema generation.
Made with the assistance of a Sundance Institute award, her debut feature “La Cienaga” premiered in Competition at the 2001 Berlinale, announcing her as a fully formed and beguilingly peculiar talent and scooping the formerly named Alfred Bauer Prize for “new perspective.” That it certainly was: an acrid, humid tinderbox of repressed bourgeois family tensions in the rural north, its wilful, challenging structure flew in the face of advice Martel had received from Sundance script advisers.
Her defiance paid off, as Cannes competition berths awaited her next two features. 2004’s spare, haunting “The Holy Girl” was a study of adolescent religious fundamentalism clashing with burgeoning sexual awareness, rooted in Martel’s own troubled relationship with Catholicism in her youth. It was striking, but not quite a preparation for the avant-garde imaginative leap Martel took with “The Headless Woman” in 2008: an existential noir that conformed to no known genre rules in its depiction of a middle-aged woman losing her grip on reality in the wake of a possible hit-and-run accident, its opaque storytelling was shot through with pointed class politics that eventually outweighed its shimmering, ambiguous mystery. Critics were polarised, while the Cannes jury overlooked the film completely, but it didn’t take long to build an ardent following: in 2016, it landed in the BBC’s critical poll of the current century’s 100 greatest films.
Then the protracted wait for “Zama,” filled with sporadic shorts and TV work, and since which time, this most elusive of auteurs has been surprisingly visible. In 2018, she was the subject of young compatriot Manuel Abramovich’s documentary “Light Years,” which captured her quietly authoritative collaborative process on the set of “Zama.”
Last year, she made waves as the president of the Venice Film Festival jury, startling the media and delighting the masses by handing the Golden Lion not to an arthouse outlier, but to Todd Phillips’ billion-grossing comic-book provocation “Joker” — though her selection of Martin Rejtman’s little-seen, neo-realist Argentine miniature “Rapado” for Locarno’s A Journey in the Festival’s History program is a reminder that Martel’s cinematic tastes are decidedly catholic. A few years ago, she revealed that she was approached by Marvel Studios as a potential director early in the development of “Black Widow,” only to demur, she said, when it emerged that they’d have someone else handle the blockbuster pyrotechnics. “I would love to meet Scarlett Johansson but also I would love to make the action sequences,” she said drily. Her career may hold more surprises yet.