Zama, the long-anticipated return of Argentinian director-extraordinaire Lucrecia Martel, is an astonishing work of colonial examination and technical perfectionism.
Martel disappeared from feature-filmmaking for 9 years, consumed herself with the historical novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, and re-emerged with a major work. Her exacting method of filmmaking is on full display to every last detail. Spiritual, psychedelic, upsetting, puzzling, comedic, and violent – Zama aims for the epic and achieves more.
The story is dense. Don Diego de Zama, a magistrate and former corregidor for the colonial Spanish Empire is trying to get transferred from Asunción to Lerma so he can be reunited with his wife and child. But, as the transfer date draws closer, Don Diego’s plans begin to fall apart. His reputation starts to get exposed, and his past evils catch up with him in a major way. Blood and oppression stain his hands and follow him everywhere he goes. And wherever he goes, we go, as Martel invites the audience into the frame through the use of a sublimely eerie subconscious-striking sound design.
Much of the early part of the film establishes the environment and sets the table for the more frantic moments that take place later on. Martel seems most concerned with exploring the ideological roots of suffering rather than their gratuitous manifestations. Zama functions as a commentary of the past’s backwardness through the examination of the shameful etiquette of the many people involved. And, by including graceful representations of Indigenous People, Women, and Slaves, she is able to powerfully contrast their behaviour apart from that of the brutish Spanish colonialists. By doing this, Martel depicts a much more intricate portrait of the history compared to other films that explore similar themes. It is apparent that she treats a complicated story with compassion and respect, rather than a staging ground for murder.
Even though Zama takes place during a very specific time in (in)human(e) history, the film also addresses present circumstances. When speaking with the audience after the film’s North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Martel explained that besides showing the bloody past, she also wanted to show small moments of triumph for those marginalized by the circumstances. This is because, she continued, that it is crucial to show that true beauty can still emerge in hopeless times and it is important to use that inspiration for the formulation of new ideas.
Daniel Giménez Cacho’s portrayal of Don Diego de Zama is understated and committed. His Don Diego wears a look of quiet frustration more intensely as the film progresses. There are no showy monologues on his behalf, just fumbling desperation that erupts in anger, and eventually dissolves into resignation.
Don Diego represents both an insignificant and significant symbolic sacrifice for the filmmaker. On one hand, he is a crucial yet ultimately useless pawn to the arbiters of a bloody capitalist regime. And, on the other, he is a vessel for the denouncement of the many personal injustices carried out at the time. Don Diego’s existence in the story directly ties a line from the careless philosophies of colonization to their destructive outcomes. Each instance where he believes to be doing himself a favour, disrupts and often ruins the lives of those around him. Martel pulls no punches here, and in showing the manifestations of a society so destructive, her destruction of Don Diego becomes, at least, doubly significant.
Zama made its North American debut at TIFF 2017.
Check out the trailer below!