Lucrecia Martel’s Zama is the story of colonizer debased. It’s also a nigh absurdist satire and likely perplexing in its structure to those who are not familiar with Antonio di Benedetto’s classic Argentinian novel from which the film is adapted. Zama unravels the banality of evil and the comical ineptitude of the European invasion of the Americas via the cipher of a hapless European protagonist, whose quixotic fantasies never come to fruition.
Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a Spanish administrator stationed along the Paraguay River during the eighteenth century. Zama’s authority (and ego) deteriorates over the course of the film’s three acts, set decades apart. In the first, Zama awkwardly attempts to use his position of authority to spark an affair with another official’s wife. In the second, a new governor strips him of his powers and denies his repeated requests to transfer to a new post. In the third, an older, gray Zama joins a team of bounty hunters seeking a notorious bandit, Vicuna Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), only to quickly find himself in a life-or-death situation.
Zama’s chapter-like structure displays three different modes of storytelling, descending from a wry costume drama reminiscent of Barry Lyndon, to a Kafkaesque existential prison where bureaucracy and government malice destroy Don Diego’s life, to an end-of-life decline—with a dose of madness and despair of the King Lear variety.
Through our time with him, Zama is revealed as another impotent colonizer, lost in a new world he doesn’t understand and guarded by the facade of European notions of civilization designed to shield him and his fellow invaders from their own absurdity. There’s a quiet humor to Zama; rarely does it invoke laughter, but the entire movie comes across a bit of a bitter joke. In an early scene, a child is heard in narration stating that Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die. His loneliness is atrocious.” He is “vigorous,” “in charge,” and a “pacifier of Indians.” As the film goes on and as Zama faces humiliation after humiliation, the idea of being a god who cannot die feels more like a cosmic irony than a bold statement of one’s legend.
Zama is the first movie in nearly a decade from Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel (La Cienaga, The Headless Woman). Premiering on the festival circuit last year, it is now rolling out throughout the U.S., but it’s likely to pose challenges for many audiences who will struggle with its unconventional format. The story is slow and deliberately obtuse; important actions take place out of frame. At times the pacing slows to a crawl in order to focus on the discomfort of its characters. Martel’s esoteric style—full of long silent stretches and hazy editing—is in full flower in Zama, where the South American jungle seems to disorient and consume not just the on-screen colonizers but the audience itself. It’s only in the final act, when a bearded and elderly Don Diego is captured and bound, first by natives and then by the Portuguese bandits he sets out to arrest, that the movie jumps to life with full, forceful violence and a fearsome sublimity.
Antonio di Bendetto’s novel was published in 1956 to relative obscurity. In the mid-1970s he would be imprisoned by the military dictatorship in Argentina and tortured. He died in 1986. But toward the end of his life, Zama began to catch on as a cult hit—and then a full national classic, directly inspiring renown authors including Roberto Bolano. But only recently has the work received an English translation and a release in the U.S. market.
Martel’s films to date have taken a similar fate, enticing American critics and filmmakers (Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins swears by La Cienaga) but few others. Perhaps it is because her works refuse to play by the rules—even by arthouse standards. Her stories often revolve around selfish, bourgeois characters and brashly confront issues of race and class, but in such a way that the audience is kept at an emotional distance until she is finally ready to release the agony of catharsis. Zama is not much different in that regard. We witness the sardonic social hierarchies and the alien divide between the Spaniards and the natives (who regard their invaders with bemusement), but it’s propelled by the sweltering humidity of the South American environment, until its protagonist explodes into madness.