Lost in the Movies: Zama


For more than an hour of screentime, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) languishes as a provincial magistrate in the hot, claustrophobic, and contentious outskirts of eighteenth-century Spain's South American colonies. His desire to be transferred elsewhere perpetually butts up against the baroque mechanations of the regional bureaucracy, whose dependence upon all-too-human whims and material exploitation is laid bare in an era without any technocratic veneer. And the horny Zama's sexual appetite is even less satisfied: he's caught peeping and called a voyeur by native women on a beach, tantalized but kept at a distance by young women who sneak other lovers behind their sanctimonious father's back, and strung along for (non-sexual) favors by the elegant Luciana (Lola Dueñas) whose mature flirtation turns out to be a bow without an arrow. We eventually learn that he has a half-Indian son with whom he has only fleeting contact: whatever might actually root Zama to his surrounding environment is rejected in favor of maddening whispers, teases that can barely be called dreams let alone promises. Eventually, he will escape from this oppressive if placid cage, long past the point where it might actually be a liberation and with results that suggest it never could be anyway.

I had slightly different expectations based on the brief description I encountered beforehand (from the Netflix envelope, in fact - yes, they still send DVDs, and yes, I still subscribe to that service). This may have been my own misunderstanding; "as the years pass and nothing happens, he joins a quest to pursue a notorious bandit" is actually a fairly accurate representation of the film's shape but for whatever reason I imagined that after several scenes representing his restlessness, that hunt would be established and the movies proper "plot" would begin. This was a fortunate misconception, because it placed me in a similar situation to Diego: presuming that a change was just around the corner, and feeling bewildered and disoriented when it didn't come. This sense of perverse frustration in Antonio Di Benedetto's source novel led to frequent comparisons with Franz Kafka. Indeed, as American critics noted upon its belated English translation in 2016 (coincidentally, perhaps, just a few months before the film's release), the novel's own journey to international acclaim was filled with Kafkaesque delays and frustrations, and the author's own subsequent life was as beleaguered, if not nearly as tragicomic, as his protagonist's...imprisoned and tortured by the fascist Argentine regime in the late seventies, he was frequently taunted by impending executions only to be reprieved at the last minute.

Parallels also exist in the film's own production. For me, Zama marked a return to director Lucrecia Martel's work for the first time since my 2010 review of The Headless Woman; much to my surprise, a little research revealed that this was Martel's return too - she hadn't made a film in nearly a decade when Zama was finally released in 2017. Zama's vast list of producers includes prominent figures like Pedro Almodóvar, Gael García Bernal, and Danny Glover among over thirty names (there's even a Rockefeller in there), a testament both to the international acclaim Martel has drawn with her work and the intensity of obstacles even for a supremely talented auteur like herself, requiring a small army to get the required funding. She had nearly as many challenges (although fortunately far more allies) than Zama himself, taking a long pause from editing the movie when she was diagnosed with cancer and nearly died. The trauma seems to be woven into the film itself, despite the fact that it was shot before her illness. "Zama gets sick, but he keeps going," she told IndieWire. "I think this was very valuable for me." The film's surprising sympathy for the often nasty, and deeply complicit, Zama feels informed by a premonition of survival, or at least endurance. On the other hand, Martel made plans, in case of her death, to share the footage online so that individual viewers could assemble their own cuts of the material. This speaks to the openness of the film's ending as well as a generous yearning for community beyond simply a personal will to live, reflected throughout the movie even as it centers on Zama's isolated desperation.

According to what I can gather, the book is ultimately less optimistic in its conclusion, more inclined to present Zama's life as sterile and empty, and probably makes less room for black, native, and female members - or subjects - of the community (this seems less certain but is suggested by a few key plot changes, including the identity of the mother of Zama's child). To take the points backwards, those marginalized figures - particularly the slaves and Indians - are still quite peripheral in the film but in an ever-present fashion, often indulged with cutaways or closeups to remind us that the self-centering of the patriarchs and colonizers (including the female ones) is a matter of perception rather than universal truth. From a formal standpoint, Martel's disinclination to present Zama's claustrophobia as acrid or dull is particularly fascinating. His world is far from uninteresting; oppression and alienation result more from sensory overload than any lack of stimulation. As in The Headless Woman, Martel reflects her character's subjectivity through intricate, at times abrasively avant-garde soundscapes (in Zama, moments of awful realization are heightened by a rising, ringing noise in Zama's - and our - ears). Martel also enjoys shooting these characters in overwhelming close-ups, as if they're struggling to breathe inside suffocatingly clustered, chaotic environments depicted with pictorial clarity. Elements are  often juxtaposed in sharp relief, be they fellow humans or, frequently, wandering animals (Zama has the funniest encounter with a llama this side of Twin Peaks). At the same time, this film also has more room for grand vistas and meticulously arranged (and gorgeously colored) tableaux than I remember in The Headless Woman.

Zama's talent for surreal landscapes fully blossoms in the final half-hour, embraced even by critics who found the earlier passages too challenging. A blinded tribe feels its way through a swamp as the colonizers rest uneasily in their hammocks, trying not to draw attention to themselves. Painted a vibrant red, natives spring up from the tall grass and leap from tree to tree as the camera races latterly across the terrain. Perhaps most memorably, the captured men hover in what appears to be a cavern as violent chopping sounds and a swinging blurred shape suggest some terrible force just offscreen (I'm still not sure what's going on here; the moment has the suggestive power of a dream or perhaps a distorted cutout from a Bosch painting). The pretext for these bravura sequences is set earlier when the once-respected Zama, now bearded and clad in a tattered uniform, joins a hunt for "the notorious bandit" mentioned on my red envelope. That bandit is named Vicuña Porto and for most of the movie we are led to believe that he's already been captured, tortured, and executed by authorities. The governor even strung Vicuña's rotted ears around his own neck as a kind of good-luck charm, yet colonists blamed Vicuña for various ongoings as if he's an all-purpose ghost. In the wilderness, one of the soldiers on this hunt calls himself Vicuña but then admits that Vicuña doesn't actually exist - it's a name onto which officials and commoners alike can project their own fears and anxieties about this New World, as well as their own guilt for acts of violence and injustice.

Is "Vicuña Porto" a representation of a deeper wisdom: the realization that society's laws and structures are actually pointless, and therefore one might as well just live for oneself? Or is "Vicuña Porto" actually the furthest fulfillment of society's foolish self-delusions, taking the belief that one can will one's fate to its (il)logical conclusion? Ultimately, Zama suggests the latter (and crucial plot details follow, so fair warning). The outlaw soldier initially spares Zama's life so that he can help them discover worthless geode rocks (which he absurdly calls "coconuts"), objects established earlier in the film, at the governor's office. The false Vicuña is infuriated when the broken old man dismisses his desire, but Zama protests, in one of the most poignant and well-earned lines I can recall: "I do for you what no one did for me. I say no to your hopes." Vicuña chops off Zama's limbs but, unable to dispense with hope even for his adversaries (or perhaps just mocking Zama by forcing him to grapple with the limits of his own nihilism), he informs the screaming captive that if he sticks his stumps into the sand, he'll stop the bleeding. The next time we see Zama, he is floating down a river in a boat, rescued by natives (one of whom reminds us, and probably him, of his abandoned son). He is still alive, suggesting he probably followed the thief's advice. To further clarify, the little boy asks him, "Do you want to live?" We do not hear Zama respond, but the film's graceful final shot suggests Martel's own answer.

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