Zama: A disturbed and surreal dream of a South American colony

by James Robins / 28 August, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - Zama movie trailer

In the 18th-century, Don Diego de Zama is stuck in a place that hates everything he stands for.

Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is stranded. A middling magistrate confined to a South American backwater of the Spanish Empire, he looks misplaced in his stiff clothes and scratchy wig amid the wilds. As nearly naked children play nearby, he stands statuesque on the shoreline. How to get out of this place that hates him and everything he represents?

He begs for a transfer. When the (seemingly) biannual mail arrives, there’s nothing in it about him. As Don Diego receives the news, all sound fades away, and into the background of the shot wanders, of all things, a snow-white llama. It peers inquisitively, inexplicably, over his shoulder.

If that seems odd, well, a llama photo-bombing what is supposed to be a moment of crushing defeat is probably the least strange thing about Zama, from the Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman), adapted from Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel set in the late 18th century.

It is a deeply disturbed and surreal dream of a film, set in a woozy nether-place between the Old World and the New; between modernity and tradition; between beauty and brutality. What little narrative there is follows Don Diego’s decaying mental state. Everything else is humid texture, vague noises floating in the air like a distant siren, and an ever-increasing sense of bewilderment.

From the sensory indulgence, we can decipher some themes. Martel is very thoroughly and very cleverly condemning the colonial era – its finery and decadence built on the backs of black bodies. Slaves appear in almost every frame of the film’s first half – silently serving drinks or mechanically working a fan. Oppression of this sort is never distant and bloodless, but intimate and horrifying.

And Don Diego, supposedly a representative of the supreme Spanish crown, is a pathetic creature – a figure of such impotence that he would make Kafka jealous. An indigenous woman (and mother of his ignored child) laughs at him when he asks for help. A local governess teases and prods his sexual frustration. He yearns for a European winter never experienced.

No doubt some viewers will find it all interminable or alienating. I can sympathise. But again, Martel conjures a dreamlike haze in Zama, and as a bit of pure cinema, it’s intoxicating.

IN CINEMAS NOW

★★★1/2

Video: Strand Releasing

This article was first published in the September 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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