Zama, Lucrecia Martel’s dreamlike and absurd new picture (her last was 2008’s elliptical The Headless Woman), is adapted from Antonio di Benedetto’s novel of the same name. It’s the story of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a sequestered and unappreciated corregidor for the Spanish crown in Paraguay. He’s also an Americano, someone born in Latin America working for the colonisers; he’s never even been to the Europe whose interests he serves.
Zama’s task, as he’s separated from his wife and children, is to petition the King and request a transfer nearer to home. The film opens with a brilliant image of his solitude: Zama stands on a beach of dark sunflower-yellow sand, looking out to the lilac sea ahead, a hand resting on the hilt of his sword, waiting. “His loneliness”, a young character announces early on, “is atrocious”. Indeed.
The film is both very funny and utterly loveless. The apt comparison is with Samuel Beckett, and maybe it’s a good one, but there’s such a strenuous sense of misery in Zama that I think even Beckett would have found to be a bit much. Zama speaks with a peremptory voice, but he’s a pathetic man, and the situations containing him all find ways of pointing out his ridiculousness (things do take a swift and drastic turn towards the end, changing from the ludicrous to the minatory).
The treatment of his character is indicative of the tonal tightrope the film walks, as it would be easy to sympathise with a person who is unloved and alone, but this easy temptation is resisted. Zama is a low-ranking member, yes, but he’s still a piece of the colonialist structure, and those under his weak control suffer more terribly than he does. This world is coming apart at the seams: and it’s because of colonialism.
Visually, Zama is preposterous. Frames often contain smaller frames (doors, windows, the spaces between tangents) reinforcing the notion of Zama’s irrelevance. However, it’s with the blocking that things become hilarious. Zama is frequently surrounded by people; some of the time they occupy the foreground, obscuring the camera’s view of him, or someone will be in the background in a distracting, scene-stealing way. And those are just the humans: Martel’s staging incorporates fences, poles, furniture, a giant squeaky fan, a stable of horses, and (my favourite) a persistently inquisitive llama.
It’s also a film of amazing sounds. Regularly, what’s audible is not within the frame. This can be seen as an attempt to distance the viewer from the harshness of this world, but the effect it achieves is diametric. You feel, like Zama, out of the swing of things; a bit dim, unaware of the scale of suffering beyond the limits of individual perception. In a word, uncomprehending. But the best use of sound is saved for those scenes showing Zama at his lowest, when this horrifying droning noise starts. It’s like a primal, inarticulate threnody.
Zama is something special. Martel has fashioned a marriage of content and style, form and fabula, so mesmerisingly detailed, well-judged, and powerful that it makes me want to stand outside cinemas in which I know it’s playing (and they are few), stop passersby and point them towards the screening room. It’s astonishing.
Image: New Wave Films