Monday, April 23, 2018

Movie Review: Zama

Zama **** / *****
Directed by: Lucrecia Martel.
Written by: Lucrecia Martel based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto.
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho (Don Diego de Zama), Lola Dueñas (Luciana Piñares de Luenga), Matheus Nachtergaele (Vicuña Porto), Juan Minujín (Ventura Prieto), Nahuel Cano (Manuel Fernández), Daniel Veronese (Gobernador), Rafael Spregelburd (Capitán Hipólito Parrilla).
The character Don Diego de Zama, who is at the heart of Lucrecia Martel’s wonderfully surreal, absurdist, comedic new film would be sympathetic if he weren’t so pathetic, and if he wasn’t a Colonist who seems completely unaware of the harm he is doing. He is an emissary of the Spanish government, stationed at a remote, rural outpost in what is now Paraguay, but in many ways, he is a man caught between the old and new world, not fitting in with either. He was born in the America’s, which in causes many of his Spanish cohorts to look down on him, but that hasn’t led him to any kinship whatsoever with those people he is partially responsible for keeping enslaved – far from it, really – he wants even more to be one of the Spanish.
All Zama really wants is a transfer out of this hellhole, and stationed in a more desirable location. In order to do that however, he needs to Governor to write a letter to the king requesting the transfer. One thing after another comes in blocking a letter from being written – at Zama’s most heartbreaking moment of realization, cosmic forces seem to mock him even more when he has to share the screen with a llama. An underling seems to get everything Zama wants, and he just has to suck it up. A new governor comes in, and with it, a whole new series of tasks that must be performed to get that prized letter – Zama only eventually realizes that even that won’t save him. He is far from his wife and children – who don’t even bother to write him anymore. He has an illegitimate child with a native woman, but cannot really see him either. He gets mixed signals from a Spanish noblewoman (Almodovar favorite Lola Dueñas), who may not be toying with him for her own amusement. Eventually deciding that he is never going to leave this place, he volunteers for an assignment that will take him into the wilderness to track down a legendary bandit – who may or may not even exist (through the first two thirds of the movie, this bandit’s death is reported several times).
Lucrecia Martel is one of the most distinctive filmmakers working today. Her films include Le Cienaga (unseen by me), The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman (both wonderful) – and this is her first feature since then, nearly a decade ago. The period detail here is excellent – the buzzing sound design even better (whether it’s the sound of nature overwhelming Zama, or the buzzing in his own mind as he gets bad news). The cinematography is also among the best of the year – especially in the final third, as Zama heads out into the wilderness with his group in search of that bandit. That is when the film descends into true madness that will likely bring to mind films like Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God.
Mostly though, Zama is an absurdist comedy – although one that doesn’t really produce any laughs. You could describe his quest to get transferred as Kafka-esque – although it’s a different kind of bureaucracy that Zama falls victim to here. His story is in many ways tragic – but it’s a tragedy of his own making, made even worse by the fact he doesn’t seem to realize it.
Zama is, like all of Martel’s films, its own unique thing. I will admit that the film doesn’t spend any time at all on placing anything into context – and so for viewers like myself, who perhaps doesn’t know as much about this time period, the film can seem more than a little alienating at times. And yet, it still ended up drawing me into this nightmare scenario, in which Zama cannot escape.

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