“Zama”: Film Review

An imperious man stands on a shore, nose aquiline, brow furrowed. Gravity is carved in his features. Noble in stance, he is the perfect image of the 18th century colonial administrator. Within moments, the scene turns to farce. Caught ogling bathing women, he is pursued, fleeing to cries of ‘Voyeur! Voyeur!’. He restores his precarious dignity by turning around and hitting one of the women, a slave.

The scene encapsulates both his flawed character and his plight: Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a man whose lifelong collapse from one moral failure to the next is shrouded in delusions of dignity and grandeur. He is in limbo but will not admit it: by accident of birth, born in the colonies and not Europe, he is doomed to be a second-class colonial: his career cannot progress. He seeks repeatedly a transfer to a city, and is repeatedly, but obliquely, turned down. He dreams of Europe, where he imagines women do not sweat, and is told, by a woman (Lola Dueñas) he obsesses over, that Europe is best remembered by those who were never there.

Trapped in isolated, barren colonial outposts, he appeals to his superiors, who indulge his illusions of dignity while perpetually reducing him. Trapped by self-defeating sexual desire, shaped by colonial contempt, he diminishes women and is diminished by them. It’s the kind of self-loathing contradiction explored by Somerset Maugham in his short story, Rain. Yet Zama’s is a picaresque, almost jaunty life. Director Lucrecia Martel has created here a compelling anti-hero. She is known for her oblique, and almost discursive narrative approach in previous films like La Ciénaga or La Niña Santa, which have received strong critical acclaim.

“Zama” is a mordantly funny film, a deadpan satire. Set in the 18th century, it is far from a period drama. It’s a tale of the modern self, and a vivid recreation of the existential absurdity of 20th life, as described so piercingly by writers such as Pirandello, Ionesco or Buzzati. Under a visual surface of strict realism, often documentary-like, Zama’s story is hallucinatory, absurd, hyper-real. The film’s visual style is deliberately sober and sometimes withholding – there are scenes which occur in the dark, and at those times the image is almost undiscernible, the screen almost black.

The shifting sense of the absurd, of modernity, of the hyper-real is underpinned by a rich soundtrack: everyday sounds are brought to the fore by sound designer Guido Berenblum, even the sound of air kissing by courtly men greeting each other. A deep electronic tone drones when Zama experiences, rarely, moments of cognitive dissonance  – a Shepard-Risset glissando, which creates the illusion of continuously falling sound. Glimpses of absurdity are accompanied by engaging songs – performed by Los Indios Tabajaras, a band popular in the last mid-century. Their music is a whole world in itself. Cheerful guitar music, laden with reverb, on the verge of cheesy listening, it brings to mind a more languorous Django Reinhardt, and Anton Karas’s zither music in The Third Man. Deeply ironic, of course, but also deeply pleasurable.

Martel based her a film on a 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto. It’s a cult classic by a writer steeped in the cinema: Benedetto was not only a journalist, but also a film critic and a scriptwriter. In 1976, during the dark days of Argentina’s military dictatorship, he was arrested, tortured and held prisoner for eighteen months before being allowed to live in exile. The darkness he experienced was presaged, in some ways, by the world he had created in his novel, twenty years before. His dark irony is one which is recognisable in Kafka’s despairing yet matter of fact tones, and in the life of Dino Buzzati’s protagonist, in The Tartar Steppe – Drogo. Tellingly, Di Benedetto dedicated his novel to ‘the victims of expectation’. Zama, like Drogo, lives a limboid life in a brutally indifferent world, precisely because he neither makes his peace with his place in it, nor acts effectively to transcend it.

A Borgesian character dominates the life of the colony: a bandit, Vicuña Porto. Does he really exist? He is, in any case, a possible way out for Zama, and a catalyst. In a moment of jeopardy, Zama finds himself saying, recklessly: I say no to your hopes.

Austere images give way to lush, painterly landscapes. Verdant palm trees are flatly foregrounded against immense skies streaked with pink-tinged clouds. As Zama’s old life ends, and perhaps, if he finds a way, a new one begins, a child asks him: Do you want to live?

Writer & Director: Lucrecia Martel, adapted from the novel by Antonio di Benedetto

Cinematography: Rui Poças
Sound design: Guido Berenblum
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Rafael Spregelburd, Nahuel Cano, Mariana Nunes, Daniel Veronese

“Zama” is available to buy/rent here.

The Novel by Antonio Di Benedetto is available here and free with Amazon Audible.

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