“Whenever he is asked about the fantasies that his audience has about him, Alonso defends himself against being too erudite or indulging in work steeped in cinephilia”
The Russian critic and philosopher, Mikhail Bakhtin, taught us that the novel is a complex network of social voices, representing a historically innovative and original form of polyphonic expression. Beatriz Sarlo expands on this idea and argues that it is legitimate to refer to the sound relationships between works of art. Thus, culture can be seen as a web of singular expressions, interconnected by the “acoustic” reverberations of contemporary life. Creation is only possible through the immanence of relationships, resonances, and echoes, and invention always involves encounters. In this article, I will analyze the “convergence” (Adorno), the sound correspondences in the aesthetic explorations of Lisandro Alonso and Lucrecia Martel, as they seek to listen to the voices of Antonio Di Benedetto and Juan José Saer.
The highly anticipated film adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel Zama (1956) by Argentine director Lucrecia Martel premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, receiving an overwhelmingly positive response. A few years earlier, Lisandro Alonso, considered the most radical among the loosely connected “New Argentine Cinema” directors, underwent a profound transformation in his career with Jauja (2014). This colonial fable is set in Argentine Patagonia during the “Desert Conquest” in the late nineteenth century. It’s striking to note that both Zama (the novel and the film by Lucrecia Martel) and Jauja, as well as El entenado (1982) by Juan José Saer, use similar narrative techniques to represent the colonial experience in Argentina. These techniques include the alienation of the senses, the portrayal of the ineffability of narrative, the dream-like fluidity of time, and an aesthetic of suspension.
What is colonialism? In all the Argentine examples mentioned, it is portrayed as a mental illness, a deranged thought that infects contemporary thinking at its core, a sluggish psychosis of the white man who is losing his balance in his own order of representations, feeling that his reality is disappearing beneath his feet. Martel’s Zama plastically pierces a sinuous labyrinth of strangeness and deliquescence into the blind spots of the colonial psyche. Don Diego de Zama is an isolated official stationed in a remote Spanish colony in Latin America during the eighteenth century. The “corregidor” macerates (to use a verb from Di Benedetto’s novel) in indefinite waiting for an order that will allow his transfer to the city of Lerma. In a world where nothing seems clear, his knighthood is constantly undermined by circumstances. He encounters a governor who steers him around in a boat, a brandy merchant who dies under his jurisdiction, a subservient deputy, a bitter lady who snubs his gallantry, and the terror of an elusive bandit in the region. As time passes, Zama sinks deeper into despair. Don Diego de Zama is a plaything of the vicissitudes that surround him, a monster of indetermination and expectation, masterfully portrayed by Daniel Giménez Cacho, who manages to convey a tense face and fleeting glances that persist even as they are irreparably altered by the heat and delirium. With the material provided by the actor, Lucrecia Martel sculpts a cinematic figure that embodies a thought: a person sick with hope. At this point, Martel manages to tune into Di Benedetto’s philosophical tone: steeped in the problematic of subjectivity, the film confronts a recalcitrant reality and whispers with a thousand strange signs and secret movements that seem to conspire against conscience. It all refers to Zama’s mental punctum. Martel translates this punctum from literary to cinematographic language magnificently, with intriguing construction plans, decentering the position of the character in inconvenient spaces, as if to relativize his place in a world that is less and less decipherable.
Zama is a novel (and film) about waiting, while Jauja is a fable of searching. Both, despite the surprising ending of Jauja, are structured based on an aesthetic of suspension. Rocío Gordon defines “suspension narratives” as stories that momentarily distance themselves from the present to see its shadows, trying to recover an experience from its impossibility and proposing the centrality of a narrative with its own logic. In a reality where other types of discourses dominate—such as acceleration, definition, and apparent immediacy—these narratives work in relegated places, in other spaces, with slowness and delays, with and from suspension. The narration of suspension, which is not a suspended narration, “captures and overwhelms, stops and moves, narrates by describing, promises without promise, is based on imprecision, is located in the confines, postulates itself as an interstitial space from which a reading of contemporaneity can be made” (Narrativas de la suspensión 16-7). Within the aesthetic imaginary of suspension, Gordon places so-called “slow cinema,” a movement within which both Alonso and Martel are insistently included. The label “slow cinema” refers to a model of experimental art or film that possesses a set of distinctive characteristics: emphasis on extended duration (in both formal and thematic aspects); an audiovisual representation of stillness and everyday life; the use of the long shot as a structural device; slow or non-dramatic narration (if narration is present at all); and a predominantly realistic (or hyper-realistic) mode or intention. This conception of slowness has been present in modern cinema since its appearance after World War II, but it has become increasingly prevalent as an institutionalized mode of film practice over the last three decades.
“ACCORDING TO MARÍA GABRIELA MIZRAJE, DI BENEDETTO DIED WHILE HOPING TO SEE AN ADAPTATION OF ONE OF HIS NOVELS, ESPECIALLY ZAMA, ON THE BIG SCREEN”
Whenever he is asked about the fantasies that his audience has about him, Alonso defends himself against being too erudite or indulging in work steeped in cinephilia. Although Alonso’s work has repeatedly been located within the tradition of hyper-intentional ethno-fiction cinema, and even though Jauja magnificently demonstrates how much it carries the temperament of Raúl Ruiz or an outdoorsy David Lynch, Alonso surprises everyone by placing himself under the aesthetic affiliation of the literature of Juan José Saer.
“Fucking country”” These are the words uttered by Gunnar Dinesen, played by Viggo Mortensen. In Jauja, the country in question—sumptuously filmed—is the most desolate part of the southern Pampas and Eastern Patagonia: a green and chaotic land with uncontoured moors and coasts populated mainly by sea lions. It’s a landscape where the “Desert Campaign,” led by General Julio A. Roca, took place in the 1880s, seeking to extend the conquered territory beyond the province of Buenos Aires. This operation of “conquest,” considered by many historians as a genocide of the natives, was orchestrated by the nascent Argentine nation. Among the troops of brute exterminators in uniform, the distinguished silhouette of a Danish military engineer stands out: Dinesen, who gets lost in these confines for some unknown reason, accompanied by his blonde fifteen-year-old daughter, Ingeborg. One of the soldiers asks Dinesen for his daughter’s hand, but she prefers another soldier. The next morning, Dinesen wakes up alone, and the film follows him on his search for Ingeborg’s kidnappers. At this point, Lisandro Alonso shifts the focus to what really interests him: the wanderings of his protagonist. And it’s no exaggeration to say that a significant part of the film is dedicated to filming Viggo Mortensen walking on Patagonian pebbles—again and again and again. This repetition and plastic extension of time are Saerian resources par excellence.
This is the moment to highlight that there is a missing link between Alonso, Di Benedetto, Martel, Saer, Jauja, and Zama: the late director Nicolás Sarquís. Sarquís was born in the Buenos Aires town of Banfield on March 6, 1938, and studied film at the Santa Fe School of Cinematography, which was dependent on the Universidad del Litoral. Upon returning to Buenos Aires in 1964, he became an assistant director of various films that were then part of the “new Argentine cinema” movement. He made his feature film debut in 1967 with Palo y hueso, an adaptation of Saer’s text.
What interests us here, in addition to the filming of Palo y hueso, is that in 1984 Sarquís began (and left unfinished) the first adaptation of Zama, of which there remains a montage of approximately 45 minutes and as many minutes of raw material, now in the possession of Nicolás’s son, Sebastián Sarquís. But guess who saw the Sarquíses’ Zama? Lisandro Alonso. During his stay at Harvard between 2016 and 2017, I had the opportunity to conduct several interviews with Alonso. One day, as we were reading an article together in which Italian, Russian, and Iranian labels were stamped on him, he said, “Yes, well and good, but I am Saer.” Of course, this phrase set off all my alarms, and I decided to investigate more about this creative relationship that has been so little explored up to now.
Alonso studied film at the University of Buenos Aires from 1993 to 1996 but dropped out without obtaining the official title of film director because Nicolás Sarquís invited him to work at his production company. Sarquís was a close friend of Saer, who often stayed at his house upon returning from Paris. This friendship preceded the filming of Palo y hueso, which is considered a Saerian film since Saer wrote the script adapted from his own story and was involved in much of the filming process. Alonso was introduced to Saerian literature by Sarquís, who gave him a copy of Cicatrices (1969). Reading Cicatrices was such an epiphanic experience for Alonso that he later devoured each of the Santa Fe writer’s books with relish, except for the book of essays El concepto de ficción. As Sarquís’s assistant, Alonso hoped that one day Saer would stop by the production company, which was half a block from Sarquís’s house, so that he could shake his hand and express his deep admiration for him. Eventually, Alonso and Saer met, and they had very cordial meetings with lots of laughter and wine, which always had to be from the Luigi Bosca brand. Alonso also began to admire the work of Sarquís, who until then had only been his employer, and especially Palo y hueso, whose aesthetics he says were very influential for him (Palo y hueso is a slow, dry, austere film without ornaments, almost resembling a documentary).
Unfortunately, the collaboration between Sarquís and Di Benedetto wasn’t as fruitful as the one with Saer, and filming had to be canceled two weeks after it began due to budget constraints. However, while at the studio in Balvanera, Alonso saw the 35mm footage of Sarquis’s Zama, and even considered the idea of resuming and completing the project. But we will never get to see Alonso’s version of Zama, as he has stated that the project will never materialize now that Martel’s adaptation has been released.
The two years of aesthetic and emotional fusions at Sarquís’s production company left a lasting impact on Alonso’s professional development. He claims that he learned everything he knows about film technique during his time in Balvanera, rather than at university. Regarding Saer, Alonso highlights the narrative intensity of his work. One of the central characteristics of Juan José Saer’s literature is his remarkable perceptiveness, which he transforms into pure poetic power through meticulous and obsessive observations of any event, phenomenon, or landscape and his personal interpretation. Beatriz Sarlo, a renowned specialist in Saer’s work, explains this perfectly in an article published in the La Nación newspaper: “He had the sense of the concrete. The novelty of his stories has to do with this unusual place of description and, naturally, with his incomparable perceptive capacity. Or, to put it another way: Saer describes the movements of his characters and narrates what, in a less singular literature, would be the descriptions. He describes the action and narrates the perception.”
The time of coexistence with the narrative-descriptive pulse of Di Benedetto, Marquís, and Saer was so deeply ingrained in Alonso’s art that pieces of Zama and El entenado, Saer’s masterpiece on colonial delirium, can be seen in Jauja (Alonso keeps on his agenda the old desire to transform El entenado into a miniseries of ten episodes, one for each year that the protagonist was under the captivity of the Colastiné tribe).
According to María Gabriela Mizraje, Di Benedetto died while hoping to see an adaptation of one of his novels, especially Zama, on the big screen. In 1970, the Mendoza writer participated in the “Argentine Literature and Film Week” held at the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo. During the event, Di Benedetto shared a panel with Nicolás Sarquís and talked about how he used film techniques to write his story “Declinación y Ángel.” He said, “‘Declinación y Ángel’ is narrated exclusively with visual images, not literary ones, and sound. It was conceived in such a way that each action can be photographed or drawn or, in any case, can be explained through dialogue, the noise of objects or simply music.”
I have the impression that Martel translates Diego de Zama’s inner monologue using the sieve of the “cinematographic” method that Di Benedetto used to write “Declinación y Ángel.” And I am certain that Lisandro Alonso used the same method, which is Di Benedettian and Saerian, to paint the Patagonian plains of Jauja.