Director: Lucrecia Martel
Stars: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Mariana Nunes
It’s been a decade since Lucrecia Martel stirred art house audiences with the quietly provocative The Headless Woman, but following a handful of shorts and a documentary, she returns to feature filmmaking with Zama, an absurdist sideswipe at colonialism.
Daniel Giménez Cacho stars as Don Diego de Zama, an Argentinian magistrate stationed in 17th century Asunción whose authority in the city is minimal. We meet him staring out to sea in isolation as he longs to return to Buenos Aires. He is a man fully aware of the meaninglessness of his present circumstances. He has a bastard son by one of the local women, but they do not interact due to barriers of race and class. So he spends his time spying on women taking communal mud baths, or seeking solace in the company of Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), the nearest person in his social reach to an aristocrat.
This beautiful opening shot (pictured above) immediately recalls Lisandro Alonso’s stunning odyssey of isolation, Jauja, in which Viggo Mortensen’s character chased after his wayward daughter across increasingly inhospitable terrains, his impractical uniform becoming more and more cumbersome. And indeed, Zama appears lost throughout Martel’s film. But the approaches diverge almost immediately. Alonso’s film is comedic in a sense, but more as an overall self-aware statement. Martel, however, injects farce and surrealism into Zama’s days.
A meeting with the governor, for instance, is undermined by the incongruous presence of a llama which wanders directly into the scene and leaves with similarly perfect timing. Martel offsets its appearance with a forlorn sound sting which only makes the incident seem more bizarre. The intrusion incurs no comment from the characters and only serves to underscore the weary sense that such chaos is happening all of the time. Though Zama and his peers operate under the guise of authority, their control is ethereal.
Early in the picture, Zama’s predicament is vocalised by a soothsaying child, who calls him “a god who was born old and can’t die” whose “loneliness is atrocious.” Zama is pitied rather than respected. His sole outfit becomes a kind of uniform, but he is as incongruous in the environment as that llama. The prestige of colonialism is as lost as he is. Zama ridicules such endeavours, exposing them as witless, likening them to schools of fish swimming against the current and getting nowhere.
While the tone throughout the first two-thirds recalls the subversive mocking of Luis Bunuel, what disarms is the rigorous beauty of the framing. Rui Poças’ cinematography is a series of small miracles, yet Zama doesn’t feel hemmed in by these choices. It’s exacting without feeling fussy.
Zama also points out, wryly, that ‘fake news’ – while a modern buzz phrase – has been around for centuries. Asunción has its own boogeyman named Vicuña Porto who is thought to be at large and responsible for numerous crimes, though Zama insists that he has been killed already. It sounds like the company line. Later, his death is reported again and his severed ears are displayed as trophies, but the new lie exposes the first. Does the man even exist? Such lies have existed in some form or other for eternity. What’s exposed here is the incompetence of their execution, and the dangerous apathy toward them.
Luciana’s handmaiden is Malemba (Mariana Numes), who plays at being mute and has had her feet mutilated. Malemba wishes to marry, but Luciana sees the decision as a shame. Malemba has acquired her freedom from slavery only to, in Luciana’s eyes, relinquish it. Slavery, it suggests, is intrinsically linked to masculinity.
The failings of masculinity also recur. A local keeps his daughters cooped up to preserve their innocence, oblivious to the fact that they’re visited at night by local men. His ineffectual guardianship is mocked. Zama himself is a voyeur and has affection for Luciana, but he never acts or participates and may be sexually stilted or impotent. His inaction reflecting the increasing impotency of his position.
And then the film makes a sharp third-act turn into new territory, both tonal and geographical, and turns into a small odyssey of exploration. Thanks to changed circumstances, Zama finds himself on a trip out into the wilds in search of the villainous Vicuña Porto. What he finds, what occurs out there, doesn’t exactly jar with the prior film, but it does represent a stark progression or swerve. It’s unforgettable cinema – and it renews a sense of captivation that had just started to flag – but will require plenty of digestion. In truth I’m still ruminating on an ending that leaves you similarly in the wilds.
Zama is being eagerly greeted as another masterpiece from Martel, and one of the highlights of world cinema of this decade. This may well be the case. After seeing it I felt the intense need to do nothing but contemplate, and I slept. This is a singular comedy with a sting in the tale, one that invites you back to continue working on its ultimate intent.
That’s a long way of saying I felt confounded, but also within grasp of something that I know is there, that I have faith in. Like a man, standing on the shore in an outfit that’s become a joke, trying to recall what he’s looking for.