Film Review: Zama

Lucrecia Martel’s dense and sometimes deliberately disconcerting film takes you on a hallucinatory journey into the heart of colonial darkness.
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Resplendent in his full administrative uniform, crowned by a massive three-cornered hat, colonial magistrate Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) stands astride the sandy banks of the Paraguay River, contemplating the other shore. This opening shot perfectly encapsulates the atmosphere of stasis and anticipation that hangs over Zama, the first film from Argentinian writer-director Lucrecia Martel in the nearly ten years since The Headless Woman. Based on Antonio di Benedetto’s renowned 1956 novel, Zama is a complex and sometimes deliberately disconcerting film: at once an absurdist comedy of manners, a cautionary tale of colonial horrors, and an existential study in failure and frustration.

Stuck in a backwater outpost where news of the outside world trickles in with bothersome irregularity, Don Diego’s life is dominated by contrarieties. Though he’s known as a just man who never adjudicates with his sword, he’s pretty quick to take it up when an unseen prowler invades the household harem comprised of his major-domo’s three nubile daughters. While he longs to return to his native Spain, where his wife and growing children await him, he has fathered an illegitimate son by one of the native washerwomen. And Don Diego’s exasperations are only further compounded by his hilariously feckless attempts to seduce the Treasury Minister’s wife, Doña Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas).

Martel imbues these proceedings, which oscillate without warning between the sardonic and the merely abrupt, with a potent sense of the ridiculous. Don Diego’s quixotic battles with the Spanish bureaucracy become positively Kafkaesque. In a last-ditch attempt to curry favor with the Governor (Daniel Veronese), Don Diego agrees to compile a “ruthless” report on a minor functionary, Fernández (Nahuel Cano), who has misspent his tenure at Government House committing the unpardonable sin of writing a book.

Martel’s compositions rigorously demarcate the boundaries between the seen and the unseen. Martel makes brilliant use of off-screen space to consistently disorient viewers: Characters frequently converse with other people who remain just out of frame, and at times the activities going on around them are discernible only as enigmatic background noise. The dense sound design also incorporates library recordings from Los Indios Tabajaras, whose plaintive dueling guitar sounds provide the ideal complement for Don Diego’s plight. As a result of Martel’s quasi-Brechtian distancing effects, Zama can be a difficult nut to crack at times, akin to the stone geodes (disparagingly referred to by the colonialists as “coconuts”) that will come to play such a strangely pivotal role in the storyline.

The final part of Zama becomes a hallucinatory journey into the colonial heart of darkness, when, out of sheer desperation, Don Diego volunteers for a military expedition to hunt down the elusive brigand Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), about whom we have heard wildly conflicting reports. Though it remains determinedly sui generis, the film at this juncture bears more than a passing resemblance to the Werner Herzog of Aguirre: The Wrath of God. The gruesome finale, with its briefly glimpsed episodes of almost ritualistic torture, both bookends and reverses the opening scenes. The film ends on a note of surprisingly serene ambiguity. Adrift, disconsolate, Don Diego de Zama still finds himself confronted by that most fundamental of existential quandaries: Can he go on? Will he go on?

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