Zama ★★★★

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.


Undoubtedly different from the rest of Lucrecia Martel's highly idiosyncratic filmography, Zama is nevertheless every inch a Martel film. Not only is it the work of a master, with each and every cut and framing so perfect as to feel somehow holy writ. It is, much like La Cienaga and The Holy Girl, a droning symphony of waiting, a study in suspension. And, like The Headless Woman, Zama is centered on a protagonist whose sense of entitlement is so great that not only is it his undoing. It becomes virtually indistinguishable from mental illness.

Based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, a book that is widely regarded as the key text of Argentinean modernism, Zama places the existential ennui of Beckett and the administrative hopelessness of Kafka within a 17th century context. In so doing, Benedetto, and by extension Martel, are identifying a sense of dislocation and madness at the very heart of Spain's colonial project and the civilization of South America. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a functionary of rank, a man who has spent years wasting away in Paraguay and wants to be reassigned to Argentina, where his wife has been waiting for him. (In the book, Zama wishes to go to Buenos Aires; Martel changes it to her own hometown of Salta.)

Everything goes wrong. A flirtatious noblewoman (Lola Dueñas), wife of the Treasury Minister, implies that she can help him, but he takes an unwanted romantic liberty, by which the lady acts mock-scandalized. He gets into a fist fight with another colonial functionary (Juan Minujín), which results in the visiting Governor (Daniel Veronese) punishing Zama by awarding the coveted Salta transfer to the other man. And eventually, Zama, a broken man, joins a team to try to find a notorious bandit (Matheus Nachtergaele), and is relieved of a couple of body parts for his trouble.

The plot, such as it is, is episodic and bitterly comedic, Martel taking a sly, savage delight in fleshing out this fussy would-be aristocrat and bringing him low. But the actual substance of Zama lay in its engagement with the rocky seaside landscape. Like a series of musty tableaux come to life, Zama draws its representational strategies from 17th century museum painting, in particular the overly mannered portraiture whose purpose was to establish men's importance and rank. Zama is frequently plastered in the foreground of the frame, as if by maintaining a certain courtly bearing he can simply will the world around him to conform to his European notions of decorum.

Over time, though, Zama's place in the compositions becomes less prominent, Zama himself less strident and more befuddled. For instance, when he is ejected from his home and forced to squat in a derelict shack, all his belongings are scattered across the sand like a garage sale. Zama wanders through the frame, vainly trying to establish order. By the time Zama has given up his wait and tries to accommodate himself to his surroundings -- to be a soldier, as it were -- he is bearded and dusty, anchoring the center of the frame but fading into it like a mirage.

Zama is a remarkable film about failure, the fundamental wound at the heart of masculinity, and how it continues to radiate its effects outward, finding new worlds to pervert under the auspices of progress. But there's also possibly a self-reflexive element to Martel's decision to bring Zama to the screen. She has allegedly worked and failed to produce a futuristic sci-fi epic, and in her inability to get that together, she instead repaired to the distant past. Argentina, and the rest of the world, is incredibly screwed up right now. Perhaps Martel is attempting to return to the scene of an originary crime.