Much like Terrence Malick’s The Tree Of Life (2011) and Martin Scorsese’s Silence (2016), Lucrecia Martel’s Zama was rendered a fabled arthouse project, a project that cinephiles salivated over for years before it finally premiered at the Venice International Film Festival – though controversially in an out-of-competition slot. Reportedly ruled out of a Cannes competition berth because of jury president Pedro Almodóvar’s involvement, the film is nevertheless a belated new work by a major artist, and its humble unveiling defies the intense buzz and excitement around the project. Given the opportunity, the film could surely have competed for a big prize for Martel at a number of high-profile European film festivals.
Be that as it may, the realized film is an adaptation (Martel’s first) of a classic work of Argentinian literature, Antonio di Benedetto’s historical fiction about the eponymous character. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, magnetic), a magistrate of the Spanish empire is stationed in remote Asunción, Paraguay, thousands of miles away from his wife and children who are in the cosmopolitan capital Buenos Aires. The period is the 1790s (unspecified in the film but indicated in the novel) and Zama, a Spaniard born in the Americas, is a man displaced in multiple ways – a man out of place, out of time and very likely out of his mind.
Zama then is a Latin American Ulysses, and the film opens as such with Zama gazing with yearning at the undulating waters from a riverbank, stuck on his own equivalent of Calypso’s island, which he might never escape. What he desperately awaits is any word of his transfer to a post closer to his wife and family, a transfer that seems ever elusive and shrouded in undecipherable uncertainty, a veritable conduit for crushing existential malaise.
Sexually deprived and unpaid by the Spanish crown for months on end, Zama’s awkward attempts to bed Luciana, a fellow minister’s wife (Lola Dueñas) are as successful as his attempts to gain income on the side – that is not at all. The abject passive-aggressive hierarchical structure of the time means Zama has to humiliatingly suck up to his boss, the Governor, with the only ego-soothing balm being he himself is sucked up to in return by his own subordinates. The mundaneness of his administrative life is well depicted in scenes where he is dispensing his magistrate duties in a strictly disembodied way.
Underlining his displacement is the fact that Zama, while a white male of Spanish lineage, is still at the end of the day an American (as his subordinates and superior cuttingly remind him). And any of his pretensions to the contrary (he early on claims that he would have sexual intercourse only with white Spanish women) further alienates him from the people who surround him, which includes several characters of color or mixed birth or people at peace with being Americans. As Luciana tells Zama, “Europe is best remembered by those who have never visited it,” you can feel the colonial resentment that afflicts Zama, feeling impotent compared to his faraway European brethren, a feeling that must have been doubly powerful in those times. The film subtly hints at the uneasy balance between the colonized natives and the intruding Europeans without being overtly political about it.
But foregrounded above all is Zama’s endless anticipation, and Martel brilliantly recreates the subjective experience of the protagonist just as she had done in The Headless Woman (2008) with somewhat repetitive scenes and phrases and motifs giving the sense of time distended or déjà vu – the disorienting feeling of the clock and all surrounding life having come to a standstill. When the film with a jarring jolt cuts to several years ahead in the narrative, it is a sobering sight to see Zama, with greying beard, still awaiting word of his transfer. This time leap also sets up the terrific last section of the film, a kind of sustained set piece which chronicles the manhunt for Vicuña Porto (the often name-dropped nominal villain of the tale, almost like the Keyser Söze of the 1790s) and Zama’s final fate as he embarks on this foolhardy mission, yet again in an attempt to hasten that illusory transfer.
The release of Martel’s film auspiciously follows the recent debut of the novel in the English language, in a new translation by Esther Allen, 60 years after its first publication – though it is unclear if Martel’s promised film version had anything to do with its opportunely timed issue into the English-speaking world. Martel’s film will no doubt do wonders for the novel’s reputation and popularity among English-speaking audiences, not least because those confounded by the film will rush to devour the slim volume in search of answers.
For Zama can certainly be confounding, without the necessary geographical and historical context that a reading of the novel affords. The novel is a series of brief vignettes and incidents recollected almost in a dream-like diary fashion and Martel crafts a similar narrative – a progression of incidental detail rather than a forward-moving plot replete with incident. The seamless elliptical narrative allows scenes to bleed into one another so that even without strict or coherent causality, each new scene seems the product of the previous scene and anticipates the next scene. The film’s rhythm can be perplexing but the internal logic of the overall experience carries the viewer on. It can be thrilling to surrender yourself to the unique cadence of an artist operating in a higher gear and such is the case here.
Martel’s work behind the camera is as arresting as it is on the page, especially with regards to bringing the period to life, which she does in a wonderfully tactile manner. The novel almost entirely eliminated any significant period detail (it was written in 1956), and this gives Martel a lot of wiggle room to bring the world of the 1790s to life. Period detail in costumes and set design is abundant, though unfussy and unfetishized as it often is in Hollywood productions. She is very well served by cinematographer Rui Poças who, building on the exemplary work that he did on João Pedro Rodrigues’ The Ornithologist (2016) and Miguel Gomes’ Tabu (2012), provides magnificent, memorable and screen-filling images. An anachronistic and ahistorical sounding score contributes amply to the disorienting atmosphere which Martel so carefully tries to construct.
What eventually lends poignancy to Zama’s quest for deliverance from stagnation is the universality of the experience of arriving at an impasse in life (either professional or personal) and the ensuing helplessness that drives people to distraction, confusion, and wild attempts to escape. Teeming with such sympathies is the formidable new work by the great Lucrecia Martel. Cinephiles around the world should rejoice that she is back in fighting form after being away for much too long, and her welcome return brings a work that is both singularly demanding and rewarding in equal measure.