Whether John Boorman, Terrence Malick, or Werner Herzog is behind the camera, films about European contact with indigenous peoples tend to abjure a hard narrative line in favor of a imagistic collage that often gets “hallucinatory” slapped on it like a sell-by sticker. It’s as if the concatenation of history, myth, and the director’s personal obsessions demand nothing else. Zama is more imagistic and narrative-wary than the competition, but it’s not obsessive. Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Holy Girl, La Ciénaga), returning to film nine years after the extraordinary The Headless Woman, depicts the frustrations of a mid-level administrator in a colonial backwater in modern-day Paraguay, awaiting the royal letter approving a transfer. Zama will be a tough sell: a fictional film about frustration whose rhythm is circuitous, its developments oblique.
When the film opens, helpless functionary Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) fills the frame as he stares out to sea; in the background native children play. By the time Zama ends the scene will play as irony, for it’s the natives who loom in the imagination of Don Diego and who exact a price for the banal humiliations of Spanish rule. Martel makes this clear in the next sequence: the interrogation of a prisoner for unspoken crimes. But will he be tortured into confessing? Don Diego says no. The absence of soul-searching — Don Diego could’ve been asked if he wanted sugar in his cafe — and the obliqueness with which Martel and editors Miguel Schverdfinger and Karen Harley shape the sequence smudge the question of responsibility. Instead, the prisoner offers a proverb of sorts about a fish “fighting water that seeks to cast it upon dry land.” Appropriate — Don Diego’s impasse is sexual too. Although he flirts with the married Luciana (Pedro Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas), her response is akin to a member of the royal court patronizing a bureaucrat. Certainly Luciana lives in the grand manner: Martel’s camera coolly notes the black servants unceasingly fanning the thick humid air.
I looked to Martel’s coolness as one might for the sight of a familiar face in a crowd. With each scene Zama‘s narrative becomes more fractured, a series of fascinating dead ends that are the cinematic correlative of Don Diego’s plight. The fresh, docile expression of a llama, which shares frame space with our protagonist when he pleads his case with the indifferent governor, is a witty touch; The music — a bewitching miscellany of Los Indios Tabajaros’s surf music and electronic whooshes, the latter used during Don Diego’s moments of highest stress — complements the impeccable period decor and costume, itself a complement to a present of cholera and spider wasps,.
Based on the 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama gathers momentum in its final act. Don Diego, as if willing himself to do something, joins a posse in search of a mystery man, accused of many crimes. The journey ends as it must when the men confront a tribe; violence ensues; blood is shed. The tones and colors with which cinematographer Rui Poças has played become lurid, best seen in a scene where Don Diego’s mate sleeps on a dead horse. Don Diego learns his fate; to quote Thomas Hardy, “Justice” was done, and the President of the Immortals (in Aeschylean phrase) had ended his sport with Don Diego.