Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) stands on the beach in the opening shot of Zama with a preening air of authority. Wearing a tri-corner hat and clutching a ceremonial sword, he casts a look down at the lapping waves as if pondering whether he could even order them to turn back. But there’s a frayed quality to the scene. Zama’s regalia looks faded and droopy, his brow is sweaty, and the beach he’s on is quiet and serene. An instrument of the Spanish crown in a remote South American colony, he is less the master of all he surveys and more a useless relic propped up on a forgotten shore.
The Argentine auteur Lucrecia Martel’s first narrative film in nine years, Zama is a warped portrait of colonial power left to rot in the sun, a feverishly funny and surreal experience that mostly turns its nose up at narrative. It’s based on Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name, but that book tells its story through Zama’s internal monologue, as he schemes to find ways out of the assignment he’s been handed by the Spanish empire. In her adaptation, Martel ditches the monologue, and as a result Zama can come off as intensely abstract. But as a mood piece, it’s extraordinary.
The film is set in the late 18th century; Zama is the corregidor (colonial administrator) of some distant province (in the novel it’s specified as part of Paraguay), but he craves a more splendid post. Every attempt to move away runs into procedural and bureaucratic bulwarks; travelers come from more prosperous, far-off places the viewer never sees. Zama is trapped, and as the film progresses his little fiefdom devolves further into disrepair. Martel’s movie benefits from not feeling lavish; for all the lush period details there’s nothing aspirational about the life depicted in Zama (a common trap for any satire about life atop a colonial empire). The film is too disorienting and queasy for that.