Zama (2017)
January 2, 2020 2:26 PM - Subscribe

Zama, an officer of the Spanish Crown born in South America, waits for a letter from the king that will grant him a transfer from the town, in which he is stagnating, to a better place. His situation is delicate, and he must ensure that nothing overshadows his transfer. He is forced to submissively accept every task entrusted to him by successive governors, who come and go as he stays behind.

Lucrecia Martel’s lavishly composed eighteenth-century period drama, Zama, follows a Spanish colonial officer as he futilely awaits a transfer from Paraguay to Argentina. Based on a 1956 novel by Argentine writer Antonio di Benedetto, Martel’s directorial voice shifts perspective to center the voices of its women and Indigenous characters.

Andiee Paviour: Languishing in a godforsaken, 18th-century South American colony, pining for his family and desperate beyond measure to be gone, magistrate Don Diego de Zama (Cacho, impenetrably morose) is in fact going precisely nowhere. Despite the not especially comforting assurances from his superiors that the king will eventually consider his transfer requests, the languid days tick by in a swirl of extravagant characters and stultifying class rituals from which no forward movement is forthcoming. Zama is fated to know no peace, his tropical torment a demented reverie teeming with gonzo details.

Director Lucretia Martel (The Headless Woman) has made a moveable feast of Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel, her drifty vignettes carving an oblique path through the miserable torpor of Zama’s internment. As his humiliating stagnation degenerates into a plainly fated hunt for a violent desperado (Nachtergaele), so too does the Kafkaesque absurdity of the plight of a man undone by hope. Zama’s story is knotty and opaque, yet those very qualities make it completely its own creation. Brutal and implacable, obstinately memorable and uncompromising, it slip-slides to a macabre conclusion with the perverse logic of a living nightmare.

Michael Phillips: The first, perfectly composed shot crystallizes what's to come. Martel and the inspired cinematographer Rui Pocas find Zama, in his tricorn hat, at water's edge, posing as if waiting for the court painter to arrive. Nearby, natives laugh and converse. A few minutes later, we see Zama in the tall grass, trying to stay out of sight while the women rub their bodies in clay. "Voyeur!" one of them shouts, laughing. Zama is a man of authority only by the presence of the hat.

All he wants, really, is to transfer to another post and rejoin his wife and their newborn. The local governor is no help; vague promises of a letter of recommendation come and go. Memories and tales of a recently executed enemy of the state haunt the settlement; the dead man, too, may be hanging around as a ghost. Zama has fathered a child with one of the local women; he's also attracted to Spanish noblewoman (the superb Lola Duenas), perpetually dipping into some of the exotic brandy recently arrived from the Orient.

Devika Girish: Lucrecia Martel’s films have always contended with colonialism, but through the Argentine director’s characteristically elliptical style . . . Martel engages directly with Argentina’s colonial legacy, although her approach remains allusive and layered. She transforms Benedetto’s epic into a dizzying, sensory head trip about a man’s gradual psychological decay, allowing larger historical and political themes to emerge organically from her meticulous formal compositions. Our introduction to Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in the film’s opening wide shot, demonstrates this beautifully: As barely clothed native children frolic freely behind him, Zama stands on the beach gazing morosely at the ocean, as if awaiting his deliverance, his government attire comically stiff for the setting. The composition recurs in the film, with Zama’s strained pomposity undercut by the presence of the colonized in the background. They either affect a rigid, almost parodic servility that occasionally ruptures into something subversive (at one point, a mute maid slyly coaxes Zama into walking in on a sexual tryst between his rival and the woman he desires), or they roam the filmic space with a nonchalance that contrasts starkly with Zama’s posturing.

posted by Carillon (2 comments total)
Zama is streaming on Amazon Prime Video in the US.
posted by Etrigan at 4:14 PM on January 2, 2020

I'm still not sure what to make of the ending. After a lot of slow burn waiting by the main character, suddenly a lot happens to him at once, I definitely think he would have preferred his initial state to his end one. I'm not sure how we're supposed to read the outcome though, or if it even matters what happens to him after the movie ends.

A lot of the frustrations at the government bureaucracy reminded me of a early-modern Gilliam or Kafka style government.
posted by Carillon at 4:48 PM on January 2, 2020

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