I left Zama feeling disturbed, rudderless and deeply unsure of my place in the world. Suffice to say, it’s an excellent film.
Based on Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 Argentine novel of the same name, Zama marks the end of a long wait for Lucrecia Martel. When the film was released on the festival circuit, over nine years had passed since 2008’s The Headless Woman – arguably the crowning achievement of her so-called “Salta trilogy”, and the work which, for many, established her as one of the most exciting filmmakers in cinema today. In the interim, she had been immersed in an adaptation of Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s graphic science fiction novel El Eternauta (“The Eternaut”), only for it fall through.
But Martel has been careful to point out that the boundaries between projects can be porous. The aborted adaptation of El Eternauta led her to grapple with questions of time and its representability, and it is the conceptual thrust of warped temporality that gives Zama such a thoroughly disarming feel.
Daniel Giménez Castro plays Don Diego de Zama, a colonial functionary languishing in an unspecified Latin American city under the rule of the Spanish crown. Beginning in 1790 – though Martel is careful to keep her references to time and place oblique – we watch him impotently circulate through the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of his seniors, lurching between nepotistic governors as he attempts to secure a transfer that will never materialize.
An incredibly complex creation, the filmmaker treats her protagonist with an idiosyncratic mix of mockery, pathos and violence. He is essentially a figure of ridicule, both submissively beholden to and complicit with his colonial overseers.
Martel delights in poking fun at the status quo, and any dramatic pretensions to heroism here are progressively deconstructed via a series of failed trysts that reduce Zama to the figure of an impotent schoolboy. Fittingly for the film’s in-and-out time scheme, his infantilisation seems complete by the close of the harrowing final act, which leaves him curled up and castrated in the foetal position, bobbing along in a wooden boat.
Yet, beneath Zama’s impotence is a threatening and deeply disturbing sense of patriarchal entitlement that rubs up against some almost-cartoonish humour from the very scene in which he beats a native who dares to chase him away for watching her bathe through the bushes. And there is even room for sympathy too, as Zama slowly comes to terms with the hopelessness and falsity of his situation.
Martel is often referred to as a filmmaker who appeals directly to the senses, and the scope of the textures and colours on display in this meticulously observed colonial world is simply overwhelming. From yellowing undershirts to termite-infested walls and plague-ridden corpses, the landscape warps in tandem with Zama’s mind.
Alongside his story, however, runs another, of the indigenous peoples – and, indeed, indigenous animals – who move in and out of frame. The compositions might verge on the epic were they not so consciously embroiled in decay, and Martel’s startling engagement of peripheral vision really deserves an entire study in itself.
It is the use of sound, however, which really makes Zama so utterly beguiling, as the laborious bustle of the slaves and the insistent rustling of the animals remind the protagonist of the world that he is so desperately unable to shut out. The soundscape drives the sense of malaise, detachment and delusion which makes Zama a challenging watch, admittedly, but also perhaps unlike anything you have ever seen.