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.
Zama, indeed, feels like he’s trapped in some kind of purgatory. Every request for a transfer is met with promises about letters that go unsent. Every meeting with a functionary of the empire is a confusing thicket of procedural language and polite discourse, apologies and excuses that end up leading nowhere. Aside from that, Zama wanders through scenes that are by turns dreamlike and horrifying, from a torture sequence involving branding irons to a sleepy group sponge bath to an (indoor) conversation that’s interrupted by a friendly llama.
At no point is it clear what Zama’s purpose actually is, or what he’s striving toward aside from recognition from his invisible superiors. Through the quiet shores the corregidor patrols and the stately headquarters cooled by servants holding large fans, Martel constructs a world that’s at once byzantine and ramshackle. When animals are barging around in the background of a vital-seeming discussion, it’s grimly amusing; at other times, it’s simply grim. Even though the landscape Zama occupies is sometimes stunning to behold, it also feels like a sweltering prison of his own making, propped up by the local inhabitants he’s subjugated.
Eventually, his desperation for notoriety mounting, Zama volunteers to hunt down and capture a famed outlaw who remains at large. It’s the closest the film comes to an actual story arc, but it’s also when things get really nightmarish. Suffice to say, his glorious quest doesn’t go as he might hope, but the ensuing violence and chaos is reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God—bizarre, undeniably graphic, and yet oddly hilarious in its utter pointlessness. Zama isn’t quite the mad conquistador of Herzog’s movie (he’s far too jaded and subtle for that), though the ephemerality of what he’s seeking feels the same.
Martel has never made a film quite this strange, but she’s always been an opaque storyteller. Zama, much like her other works (including the 2008 thriller The Headless Woman and the wonderful 2004 drama The Holy Girl), burrowed into my brain after I’d seen it. There’s absolutely nothing else like it in theaters this year, which I mean as both a hearty endorsement and a necessary forewarning. Zama is a viewing experience that can be frustratingly inaccessible at first, but it blooms in bold, surprising directions.
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