Film, Film Review

REVIEW: Zama (2017) dir. Lucrecia Martel


“I do for you what no one did for me: I say no to your hopes.”

Something is rotting in the (excellent, intriguing, go-see-all-of-it-immediately) cinema of Lucrecia Martel. In fact, most things are.

Set in her home country of Argentina, Martel’s features all but sweat through the screen with heat and humidity, while her sundazed characters drift desultorily among their not-quite-satisfying solaces–most of which are water (poolside, seaside, shower after shower) or booze. In Martel’s first feature, 2001’s La Ciénaga (The Swamp), an affluent family and friends lounge languidly around an opaque, algae-infested pool, dropping endless ice-cubes into bottomless glasses of wine, staggering from chaise to chaise to top one another off, seeming not merely drunk but also somehow cursed.

Zama is Martel’s first film in ten years. Adapted from Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name, it traces the curse back to its source: the original sin of colonization. In doing so, it recasts her entire filmography as a set of postscripts to the myth of El Dorado, like heat-warped x-rays capturing some of the after-effects of a colonial folly founded on, and funded by, greed and fantasy.

All of these films, but especially Zama and its predecessor, The Headless Woman (2008), are marked by a morbidly advanced complex of class and racial guilt. As in Herzog’s own El Dorado anti-epics, the tone is more brooding and perverse than progressive–self-laceration laced with self-pity, say.

Unlike Martel’s earlier films, which are set in the present day and center on female characters, Zama takes us back to late 18th century Argentina, where it focuses relentlessly on a very frustrated, late-mid-life male, a mid-level functionary of the crown named Diego de Zama (played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, a Spanish-born actor who, in a beard, bears a distracting resemblance to Jon Stewart. It distracted me, anyway.)

The only delineated characters in Zama–perhaps in order to avoid presumption, or romanticism–are white. Their relations with indigenous “Indians” are brutal at worst, idealizing at best, and uncomprehending by default. Some viewers, including, from what I could overhear, a few who walked out during the screening I attended, may be offended by the way native peoples are depicted in Zama: as inscrutable but exploitable natural resources, usually passive, occasionally terrifying, always unchangeably other. There is, no question, something of a Heart of Darkness vibe at work here, not so much because the natives or their continent are portrayed as inherently bad or evil, but because the Spanish don’t understand them and don’t belong there. The swamp is real enough, but it’s also of their own making.

Spanish auteur and living legend Pedro Almodóvar has served as one of Martel’s producers throughout her career, so it isn’t surprising that for all of their fixation on stagnation, dilapidation, moroseness, and muck, Martel’s films are not in themselves dull, flat, dreary things, but are instead restlessly alive with unexpected movement, angles, reflections, edits. Her audiovisual inventiveness, besides being a boon to a moviegoer’s pleasure, is also essential to the evocation of her characters’ abiding angst, the angst of being trapped, still twitching and struggling, both by the natural world and by an overbearing cultural inheritance of shame and regret. Whenever Zama’s particular predicament becomes intolerably acute–when, for instance, he cringingly petitions the casually sadistic colonial governor for assistance with his transfer request–a pitch-bending drone crescendoes up the soundtrack, as if tightening a vise of humiliation around Zama’s skull (and ours).

Di Benedetto’s novel bears a generic resemblance to such masterpieces of quixotic modernism as Kafka’s The Castle and, even more so, Dino Buzzati’s The Tartar Steppe. Slim and impressionistic, it doesn’t spell everything out. It does, however, spell out a good deal more than Martel’s adaptation does. An impression of an impression, the film distills the novel’s nightmare, amplifying its intensity while dispensing with its backstory.

Diego de Zama’s nightmare is simply this: he wishes he were somewhere else. Years into a dead end administrative gig in a provincial outpost, with very little to do but waste away in his termite-infested office while he waits, Zama longs, and uselessly begs his superiors, for a promotion, or at least for a transfer to another post. What you don’t learn in the film (unless I missed it while thinking about the uncanny Jon Stewart resemblance) is Zama’s principal handicap in this endeavor, namely, that although his parents were native Spaniards, he himself was born in Argentina. The colony-born, assigned a lower status by the crown, were ineligible for higher-ranking civil service posts. Neither Spanish nor native, they constituted a third, nebulous identity, all longing, no belonging, sort of like the species of fish mentioned early in the film, constantly at odds with a sea that doesn’t want it. Other, more timely and politically fraught comparisons come to mind as well.

Martel splits Zama’s narrative between two very distinct halves in a way that reminded me, structurally at least, of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket, with which it also shares a fundamentally sour, albeit bleakly comic outlook on the human project in general. Kubrick devoted his film’s first half to the confining, static but deadly, “character building” farce of boot camp, after which it gives way to the hair-raising hell-on-earth of urban guerrilla warfare in Vietnam.

In Zama, Martel’s carefully constructed tableau of colonial inertia and inanition rots out from under us when Diego takes desperate measures. Abandoning his post to join a gang of bounty hunters in pursuit of a notorious criminal, imagining he might thereby elevate his status and finally get what he wants, he wrenches the film and us away from staying-nowhere-slow, and right into hurtling there instead.

dir. Lucrecia Martel
115 min.

Screens through Thursday, 7/12 @ Brattle Theatre – click here for tickets and showtimes

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