Zama: Disorientating and Pessimistic

Leaving the cinema after seeing Zama, I heard the following snippet of conversation between fellow audience-members: “Something something Hard to be a God,” with the response “Yes, miserable in almost every respect.” While the misery-levels of Zama don’t quite reach the squalid depths of Aleksei German’s masterpiece, the comparison is apt in many respects. Zama, Lucretia Martel’s first film in nearly ten years, portrays a world full of futility and oppression, in which what little good there is fails to overcome the relentless absurdity of human existence. Despite being well-crafted, however, the film ultimately left me with the nagging feeling that this very pointlessness might stretch to the picture itself.

Adapted from a 1956 novel by Argentine author Antonio di Benedetto, Zama is the tale of the eponymous Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a magistrate in a Spanish South-American colony. He hopes to be transferred to Spain, and has been hoping for some time. The transfer has not come through: it may never come through. Zama waits, struggles with obstructive bureaucracy, waits some more. In the meantime, elements of a plot emerge and dissipate: a character known as “the Oriental” comes down with cholera; Zama’s deputy is writing a book on company time; a bandit known as Vicuña Porto may or may not have been executed. There are elements of both Beckett and Kafka in Zama’s depiction of a man hopelessly trapped in an administrative system, waiting for a salvation which never arrives.

The film sets out to disorient its viewers. As with Hard to be a God, the camera is often placed in unconventional places; objects, people, or animals will obscure the scene’s ostensible focus. Characters will speak to the camera, and it is unclear whom they are addressing. Animals will wander in and out of shot to no apparent end. None of the standard cinematic cues are used to convey the passing of time: the audience is left to infer from the dialogue that considerable time has passed between one scene and the next – or, in one case, from the sudden appearance of a beard on Zama’s face. Cuts between scenes might indicate a passing of seconds or of months; there is not necessarily any apparent connection between sequential scenes. Likewise, the narrative refuses to hit any conventional beats, and the dialogue is devoid of exposition or contextualisation. The viewers are thrown into the film’s world, forced to piece situations together and make inferences from snippets of conversation. This conveys an effective sense of realism, but Zama fails to engage in other ways: the conversations we witness are often repetitive – emphasising the futility of Zama’s endeavours – and there is little wit or humour to set off the film’s pervasive pessimism.

Zama gestures towards issues of race, gender, class and colonialism throughout. Black slaves and indigenous South-Americans fill out the supporting cast, and white characters speak casually of the white man’s burden, of “mulattas”, of enslaving the “Indians”. Hints at symbolism recur – a black female servant limps due to having her feet flayed, and refuses to speak; later, a group of blind indigenous people pass through an expedition’s camp. The precise insights the film seeks to convey, however, are elusive: it is unclear what, if anything, Martel has to add to the Argentine conversation on race. While Zama may be beneficial in highlighting Spain’s involvement in colonialism and the African slave trade, it doesn’t go much further. Why, after all, are we being told the story of a white colonial official – by default the protagonist – and not being presented with the voices of the oppressed groups themselves? In this respect Zama falls down in comparison to Embrace of the Serpent, a film which similarly seeks to tackle issues of colonialism in South America – but does so while bringing to the fore the narrative of an Amazonian shaman.

Diego de Zama’s own investment in the colonial system, furthermore, along with other unsympathetic elements of his character (his voyeurism, for instance), makes it difficult to engage emotionally with his story. Perhaps we aren’t supposed to: like so much about Zama, it isn’t clear. Cacho is admittedly excellent in the title role: his face bears an expression of weary nobility at odds with the often-foolish, often-boorish actions of his character. He wears the look of a man permanently on the brink of a realisation which never comes – or comes, perhaps, too late.

There is much to admire in Zama: high quality performances, often-striking cinematography, the intriguing and sparse use of anachronistic music. There is less, however, to enjoy. “Life is confusing and pointless,” the film seems to tell us, to which I want to respond “No it’s not – that’s just Zama.” The film’s final shot is visually striking, containing both beauty and brutality, but it also brings with it a sense of relief that our ordeal is over.

2.5/5 stars

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