By Liam Lacey
The Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel has made just four feature films since 2001, all wry, dreamlike tales of wayward impulses and emotional bafflement. Her new film, Zama, which is both confounding and brilliant, reaffirms her status on the shortlist of essential art-house filmmakers of the new millennium.
Martel's first three films were about women, centred around the conservative middle-class milieu in the Salta Province, in northwest Argentina, and were full of sexual and class tensions and foreboding. Her first feature, 2001’s La Ciénaga (The Swamp) explored two families in a crumbling vacation home dealing with heat, rain, alcoholism, accidents, claustrophobia and spiritual malaise. Martel's second film, the Holy Girl, had more sweltering heat, pools of water and a 14-year-old religious heroine, who sets out to save a man, even if it ruins him. Her third, the Headless Woman (2011) was stranger still, putting the viewer in the perspective of an amnesiac woman who thinks she may have killed someone and herself feels like a ghost.
Now, nine years later, we have Zama, which is completely different — it’s set in the 18th century with a male lead and in another country — but entirely familiar in its mood of anxious stasis. Martel adapted the story from a brilliant 1956 novel by her countryman, Antonio Di Benedetto, a first-person story told by Don Diego de Zama, a minor military magistrate, who is separated from his wife and family, stranded in a Latin American colonial backwater. Di Benedetto’s book, translated into English only two years ago, channels Kafka and Dostoevsky in a narrative full of guilt, persecutions and feverish impulses, in a world of political and social malaise.
In the novel, Zama regularly goes to the riverside looking for the boat that will bring a letter from his wife or news of a transfer. We follow him as he tries petty cases, fruitlessly pursues an affair with a married woman, and waits for the transfer. When he finally despairs of ever receiving the letter from the king that will liberate him, Zama joins a posse in pursuit of a notorious bandit and his gang.
Martel has taken most of the incidents of the novel directly, with some telling differences. We’re more aware of the indigenous people and black servants and slaves that silently watch the rituals and conflicts of the periwigged Spanish colonials. She has also stripped out what might be called “cinematic” opportunities — a horse race at a fiesta, for example — focusing on close-focus, intimate, awkward personal encounters.
In one of the many affronts to his dignity, Zama — as someone born in the New World — is an Americano, lower in status than any Spanish-born colonist and thus last on the list for prime postings. A new governor bumps him from his comfortable residence to a worse one. The married noblewoman he pursues (Lola Dueñas), flirts with him and then declares she finds men’s lust disgusting. The court cases he adjudicates range from distasteful to grotesque: To bury the body of a cholera victim merchant (incorrectly called an “Oriental” in the film’s subtitles though the correct word should be “Easterner;” he’s from Uruguay) and sell off his shipment of brandy. Or, to compensate a Spanish family with 60 “tame” Indian slaves, after they killed the local untamed Indians.
As the middle-aged title character, actor Daniel Giménez Cacho is a Buster Keaton-like figure, with a wonderful a poker-faced dignity, typically at odds with his absurd circumstances. (In one scene, when he is making an important plea to the governor, a nonchalant llama walks into the room and stares over his shoulder.) Everywhere he goes, he’s a man out of place.
While the elaborate costumes and tawny backdrops evoke the wry country scenes of the Spanish painter Goya, Martel signals that sense of dislocation musically, employing a combination of jaunty Argentinian guitar music from the 1940s and whining electronic drones.
In its final third, Zama, out in the jungle and river edge, slips into an ecstasy of madness. Resigned to the fact that he may never see his transfer unless he does something heroic, Zama joins a posse after a bandit (Vicuna Porto) who is blamed for every evil that befalls the settlement. These episodes are hallucinogenic: A tribe of blind natives walk through the sleeping soldiers at night. The Spaniards are taken by natives, who wear animal head costumes, who strip their clothes and paint them orange. At one point, the bandit, a puckish figure (Matheus Nachtergaele) dressed in disguise and joins the posse that is out to capture him. He protests to Zama that his evil reputation is exaggerated, and he is no more a villain than Zama is a judge, though, of course, Vicuna is a liar. Zama, a fool who would be a hero, is possessed by a touching obstinancy but judgement is definitely not his strong point.
Zama. Written and directed by Lucretia Martel, adapted from the novel by Antonio di Benedetto. Starring Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, and Matheus Nachtergaele. Opens April 20 at Toronto’s TIFF Bell Lightbox.