Sound Builds Its Own World: Auditory Montage in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama
Don Diego de Zama stares beyond the frame’s edge, longing to be liberated from his miserable post
In Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2017), the titular character Don Diego de Zama’s (Daniel Giménez Cacho) goal is to leave his station at Asunción for Lerma. As the film goes on, it becomes more and more clear that Zama feels trapped by Asunción; that it is his hell. Despite his high rank as magistrate in the Latin American outpost of the Spanish Empire in the late eighteenth century, Zama is looked down on by those around him, and treated as a fool. Martel emphasizes this characterization of Zama visually by decentering him in the frame, hiding him behind other people and objects. But the main way she captures Zama’s personal hell is through the soundscape of the film, which lays over every moment like a thick, uneasy blanket, slowly smothering him. Martel’s use of sound accords with Sergei Eisenstein’s theory of montage, which values the collision of different expressive elements. Through placing sounds in conflict with each other, Zama transforms the reality of the film into a liminal space where the viewer is separated from space and time.
Eisenstein believed the power of film came in the juxtaposition of shots through editing to create a vital synthesis in the viewer’s mind, an action he called montage: “in my view montage is not an idea composed of successive shots but an idea that DERIVES from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another” (“Dramaturgy,” 27). Take the famous Odessa Steps sequence from his film Battleship Potemkin (1925). In this scene, Eisenstein uses montage to make twenty people fleeing the Imperial guards seem like one hundred, the six flights of stairs they run down to seem like dozens, and a few minutes of action to feel like an hour. The steps become a liminal space, infinite in nature. The Cambridge dictionary defines “liminal” as “between or belonging to two different places, states, etc,” and lists as a cognate “(in) between times.”
In montage, the moment between two shots belongs in two states simultaneously, and is therefore trapped between two times, creating a sensation in the viewer of being untied from real time and space altogether. In Zama, Martel makes a few sounds into an entire world through this very concept of collision: while each individual sound was likely recorded in a different physical space and has a different sound signature, through their collision and ensuing “stuck-ness” between places, they create a new, liminal place for the viewer. Sound is more directly able to bear out Eisenstein’s concept of “collision.” While one shot typically follows another (as if in a series), it is the default mode of sound to be layered (as if in collision).
Martel uses this auditory sense of montage, juxtaposing sounds that can all play on top of each other instead of in direct sequence, to create a liminal environment that imprisons Zama by trapping him outside of time and space. Sound uniquely allows the viewers to literally feel Zama’s environment as the audio resonates in them. As theorist Steven Connor writes, “[s]ound is mapped across the whole body … when we hear a sound that we refer to a place high above our heads … the effect is of a sound striking us on the appropriate portion of the body” (113). Take, for instance, a scene halfway through Zama, in which Zama is meeting with the Governor (Daniel Veronese) to ask that his transfer request to Lerma be fulfilled. The viewer is instantly drowned in sound: though we are indoors, we can clearly hear birdcalls outside. The interiors of Zama are broken down by sound: there’s a constant outdoor presence, giving the viewer the feeling that they’ve left their door open on an unbearably hot day. The sound becomes a vessel for the humidity of Zama’s environment. Eisenstein writes about “a child’s drawing of ‘lighting a stove’” as a key example of montage, everything being proportional except for a pile of exaggeratedly-large matches: “[b]earing in mind the crucial importance of these matches for the process depicted, the child gives them the appropriate scale” (“Beyond,” 17). Martel uses a similar emphasis as a building block for her sound montage: she “sizes” the sound (by manipulating volume and panning) appropriate to its importance in the scene, as opposed to its actual volume. The Governor’s dice game is the loudest sound in the scene, because he rolls the dice of Zama’s fate, and a goat bleating at the back of the room sounds like it’s inches away, as another reminder of the inescapable environment.
Zama constantly finds himself surrounded by sonic cacophony that seems to mock him and his aspirations
In this scene, we are smothered by the constant chirping of birds, the vibration of crickets, and the operation of a ceiling fan. When the Governor tells Zama to “bring [his] child, they bring luck,” as if that will help him with gaining approval, we hear an animal call that is nearly indistinguishable from human laughter. The environment of the film, and by extension, the film itself, is laughing at Zama, tormenting him. We linger on a medium close-up of the Governor, while an attendant named Faltito (Marcelo Sein) stares at the ears allegedly severed from the outlaw named Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), ears which the Governor, foregrounded in the frame, wears on a necklace. All of the sound fades out, save for an asynchronous piece of unidentified voice over, an omen that perhaps only the viewer can hear. Faltito picks up the ears from the Governor’s chest and holds them, as nobody reacts to this strange behavior. We cut to Zama, who brings his request for a letter up, and the enveloping sound quickly fades back in, re-trapping him in his environment. By creating a contrast between the rhythmic loop of the outdoor environment and this moment of filmic silence, we are trapped between the two, taken out of reality until it is suddenly reintroduced by this silence, but also made uncanny by it.
From an Eisensteinian point of view, this scene already introduces a pivotal collision between sound and video. Our eyes tell us we are indoors, our ears tell us the opposite: as a result, the boundary between these two spaces shatters. This scene, set in a room, is now placed in boundless space. As Connor writes, sound is a medium which transcends the snapshot temporality of the visual: “the nature of sound is to occupy a passage rather than an instant of time, a duration rather than a moment. To hear a sound, one must have already heard it start to decay, or come to an end; one must already have started finishing hearing it” (111). A single sound is in montage with itself, always trapped in its own frozen time and boundless space, much like the character of Zama. Zama will eventually learn from the Governor that once the first letter is sent to ask for his move to Lerma, he must wait two more years for a second letter before his request will even be considered. He is stuck in the hell of Asunción forever (note, also, the name Asunción: he is constantly ascending towards his salvation in Lerma, never reaching it). Every bird and cricket in the soundtrack loop back endlessly, and in every moment, Zama feels the beginning and ending of his time in Asunción, never reaching either fully, stuck in the liminal space that this auditory interplay of montage creates.
Audio gives the film feeling. In Connor’s words, “sensory apprehensions of the world—wetness, texture, weight, heat, and odor—are channeled in film through sound rather than vision. Hearing, which is anyway more intrinsically mixed than the action of seeing, seems to be more inclined to enter into synesthetic exchanges than seeing” (117). Martel’s films allow us to feel their humid air through diegetic sound, while vision is not as applicable to those sensations. The soundtrack allows us to (in some ways literally) feel the weight of the endless torment of Zama’s environment. By using offscreen sound that denies the viewer a clear sound perspective, the film has us create a sound world that is separate in both time and space from the visual world, positioning us in an unfamiliar environment with no clear boundaries of space or time. While the narrative events of the film may seem to be headed somewhere, the sound tips us off that there is no escape on this path for Zama.
By the end of the film Zama is a broken man long stripped of his impotent rank. He has come into contact with a man who claims to be Vicuña Porto, who wants to know the location of what he believes are priceless gemstones. Zama, blanketed by the sound of waves crashing (which inevitably conjures in the viewer of a liminal expanse: that which is infinite but which we also know must end somewhere), warns Porto that the gemstones are worthless: “I do for you what no one did for me … I say no to your hopes.” Zama has lost his path forward in Asunción, and in the shot where he says this, he is framed in medium close-up by the endless expanses of sky and sea. For his defiance, his arms are cut off. The noise the blade makes slicing through Zama’s arm is unreal almost to the point of non-diegesis: like the sheen! of a knife being sharpened. It bounces against Zama’s scream, and eventually all fades into an ever louder single tone, which drowns out all the ambient sound that has kept Zama prisoner for so long. In this montage, the horrible shriek that now consumes the soundtrack seems so much worse than the ambient sound of Asunción which Zama felt was his hell. This recontextualization through collision begins his reawakening, both literally and spiritually.
In the next scene, we open on a tracking shot of a river, the horrible shrieking sound transformed into bird call. The soundtrack and mise-en-scène are no longer in conflict. As opposed to the Governor scene, our eyes now tell us we’re outside, and so do our ears. The next shot is a medium close-up of Zama collapsed in a boat, with mossy water breaking around it. Again, we hear waves, this time those of an endless river. The sound is still liminal, but it’s a peaceful infinity. Zama’s environment wasn’t hell, that was just the way he understood it. As he awakens, a child asks if he wants to live; nods. The film ends on a long shot of the boat rowing through the river, as music fades in on top of birdsong. As opposed to the Governor asking favors of Zama in return for his salvation, in this moment he is on his way to paradise with nothing expected of him in return. The difference between this environment and the Governor’s office is that Zama is at peace with it, and the slow-paced edits and camera movements reflect this too.
In both the Governor scene and the scene in the river, Zama shows us the way that sound can use montage to juxtapose internally. The basic unit of visual montage is the shot (Eisenstein: “the shot is a montage cell” (“Dramaturgy,” 29). But as Connor puts it, shots have borders while sound does not: “When sounds come together, by contrast, they change and are changed; they enter into each other. Edges dissolve. When one hears a sound, one never hears just one thing. One hears the sound of contact, of echo, reverberation of one thing against another; any sound is always at least two” (116). You need two shots to create a montage, but you only need one sound. Sound itself is a montage: it disjoints us from time because it contains its own pace. From my own experience designing film sound I know that any sound we hear on screen is often a layered sound collage (or montage) of smaller effects which have been stacked to produce an impression. When I had to design a lighting strike for a film, I layered 12 different recordings to produce a full effect. I juxtaposed low rumbles with high cracks, creating an anticipation which pays off in climax. This is a montage, and it happened in just one sound effect. In any given moment in Zama, we may be hearing 12 sounds at the same time, each made up of 12 recordings. Every individual effect is in montage not only with itself, but with all the other effects, as well as the visuals on screen. This exponential montage traps us between countless realities of space and time in any given moment: none of the birdcalls or leaf-rustles in Zama are individually odd, but when combined, they form a forest that engulfs both Zama and us. Zama uses this auditory montage to bend time and space, placing us in the infinite world of Zama himself. We are trained to focus on video as the primary storytelling method of film, and surely it is important. But sound is the texture of film, the emotional resonating chamber, the flavor, the “wetness, texture, weight, heat, and odor” (Connor 118). There is only one screen. Sound is unlimited.
“Liminal.” LIMINAL | Definition in the Cambridge English Dictionary, https://dictionary.cambridge.org/us/dictionary/english/liminal.
Connor, Steven. “Sounding Out Film.” In The Oxford Handbook of New Audiovisual Aesthetics. Edited by John Richardson, Claudia Gorbman, and Carol Vernallis. Oxford University Press, 2013, pp. 107-124.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “Beyond the Shot [The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram].” In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings. Edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 6th ed., Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 13–23.
Eisenstein, Sergei. “The Dramaturgy of Film Form [The Dialectical Approach to Film Form].” In Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, edited by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, 6th ed., Oxford University Press, 2004, pp. 23–40.
Eisenstein, Sergei. S. M. Eisenstein, Selected Works: Volume II, Towards a Theory of Montage. Vol. 2. Edited by Michael Glenny and Richard Taylor, translated by Michael Glenny. BFI Publishing, 1994, pp. 227–248.