Zama is a novelistic film, but not because it’s an adaptation of a 1956 Argentinian novel by Antonio di Benedetto. Watching Zama creates a feeling that’s similar to reading. The shots are so carefully composed, the sound design so meticulously off-kilter, and the shot-lengths drawn out just so. It feels like written descriptions of an interior life manifested and conveyed in a cinematic way.
All of the craft that Lucrecia Martel puts into this film communicates the emotional/psychological states of its title character, a pathetic colonial officer impeccably played by Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho. The way the sound of the jungle bleeds into his lodgings suggests his annoyance about his place in life. An obsession over rotting human ears worn as a necklace means that Zama’s superiors don’t care about his plight. Even a llama–a llama!–that wanders into the background of a shot has such a dramatic resonance when paired with the gut-sinking dive of the score.
Zama had my attention early on and would not let go. Such an odd film. Such a unique film. Zama is such a singular work–unlike anything I’ve seen in a long while.
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Release Date: September 30, 2017 (Argentina)
The film is set in the late 1700s in a small colonial outpost in Paraguay. Don Diego de Zama (Cacho) wants out. This desire is somewhat clear from the beginning of the movie. Zama stands at the shoreline looking out over the still waters. He awaits a transfer from this small outpost to Lerma or back to Spain. He is continually thwarted by the local governor. While Zama is alone in his lodgings–he is often a man who is alone–the noise of the wilderness around him bleeds in through open windows. The sound carries with it the stink outside, the humidity, and the legs and the wings and the bites of every insect unseen.
That incessant noise was my first sense of Zama‘s novelistic qualities. In the 1982 documentary The Burden of Dreams, Werner Herzog described the jungle as full of obscenity and crying murder, and Martel seems to remind viewers of that carnage just out of frame. So much in Zama is implied, allowing the viewer’s imagination to engage and complete each sumptuous, richly rendered tableau. Shots hold for a long time, sometimes shifting to what’s happening out of frame or bringing background or foreground elements to prominence. Zama is full of both large and subtle surprises. Zama’s attempts to seduce a local aristocrat played by Lola Dueñas are comically desperate. These scenes usually play out while a servant–trying to seem uninterested–operates a squeaky overhead fan. The room feels far too crowded for an assignation to take place, yet Zama is still hopeful, less a confident grown man and more of a horny old dog. Zama is sometimes a funny film, albeit in a sad, sad way.
Later, a messenger barges through Zama’s door one morning. The chair propped against the door meant to hold it shut was completely ineffective. Zama’s interior life, manifested on screen: no peace, no quiet, no sense of home, no pleasure, no fulfillment, no power to do anything. The message: he needs to move to a different building. Classic Zama.
The otherworldly nature of Zama becomes apparent as the story unfolds. Cast out into a decrepit, ramshackle hut, Martel suggests the presence of ghosts all around our pathetic hero. Yet are they ghosts? Is this a manifestation of colonial guilt creeping into the story? Are they Zama’s regrets and fears? Or are these just the diseased and downtrodden that Zama lives with now, the undersireables of this colonized coast? And yet, why not all of these simultaneously? Martel plays with these uncertainties, heightening the fear and angst experienced by Zama as he begins to realize his life is wasting away. The same can be said about his hopes of leaving this obscene existence.
I haven’t read the Benedetto novel the film is based on (NYRB published an English translation in August 2016), but Zama reminded me of a few literary works that helped deepen my appreciation for the story. Franz Kafka’s The Castle came to mind, with its main character continually thwarted to get what he wants, forcing him into a stasis beyond his control. There’s Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe, a novel about waiting for an event that never comes, hence divesting one’s life of meaning. I also thought about those opening lines from Dante’s Divine Comedy: “Midway upon the journey of our life / I found myself within a forest dark, / For the straightforward pathway had been lost.”
I had gone into Zama expecting a kind of colonial horror movie, assuming the natives would turn against their oppressors. But Zama is a different sort of movie, and I’m glad. It’s about colonial comeuppance, sure, and maybe it’s a work of colonial dystopia in some ways. Yet Martel seems to be saying so much more than that. Zama also felt like an existential movie about a life of disappointments, deferments, and struggles without avail. And yet here’s this small life continuing, not necessarily heroically, but just because. Steadily, I came to admire that meek act of being simply because. But I don’t know why. Such are life’s mysteries.
Time passes in Zama, though it’s never stated outright how much time has passed. The film jumps forward several years (I think?) for its final act, and we see a different Zama than we’ve seen before. His appearance made me wonder what he’d been through to come out looking this way; or maybe I didn’t want to know. Maybe it was just more waiting, and an even more severe whittling away of his reserves of hope. Rather than the rich yellows and ochers and browns of the coastal hillsides, Martel fills the screen with the greens of the jungle and the wild. We’ve gotten even further away from the escape promised by the shoreline that opened the film, but still every frame demands attention and every sound deserves a listen. The film continued to be such an engrossing, readable experience no matter where it was going.
I wondered in this final stretch of Zama what this movie what doing to me. I was carried along on this journey with a character whose life had drifted far from whatever meager aspirations it once had. While my attention was always on what I was seeing and hearing and how it communicated the character’s interior state, I began to process my own feelings watching this absurd character carry on. And, eventually, this absurd story took on a profound quality. Zama may not be a classic protagonist like Sisyphus, or even a set-upon Daffy Duck or Wile E. Coyote, but he’s a vessel for an audience to experience a kind of ceaseless journey in spite of almost certain failure. Just because.
Zama is such a sublime, engaging, oddity of a film. I don’t think others will respond to it quite the same way–mileage varies when it comes to art house existentialism–but it reminded me of how I felt after seeing Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color. This is a movie that speaks to me without words, and it’s a movie that reminds me of the wonderful things that can be said using the language of cinema.
Zama is a work of art.