Many films in the historical vein of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama tend to crumble under their own self-serious weight. Zama has no such problem because it brings a new spice to the kitchen. It is unapologetically Martel’s tragicomic Argentinean baby: a sneaky, satirical treatise on colonialism and the Spanish Empire’s influence on the South American continent.
Adapted by Martel from the novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama follows its eponymous Corregidor (provincial mayor) of a remote South American continent as he awaits a better assignment from the Spanish Empire. What’s impressive about Martel’s storytelling is that she finds ways to make boredom cinematic, revealing, and fascinating. We never see Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) before his spirit has been broken, and because a character presented in this way goes against conventional storytelling by not drawing us in, our eye is naturally drawn to everything (and everyone) else.
The slaves and the indigenous peoples oppressed by the imperialists become our backdrop in the foreground. We notice the large, cumbersome fan being operated by a slave in the corner because Zama himself starts as a pathetic figure whose struggle is largely laughable and uninteresting in the context of others’ true suffering. We’re fascinated by Malemba (Mariana Nunes, one of my favorite performances of the year), who suffers abuse at Zama’s hand and subsequently takes a seemingly circuitous route to revenge. In Martel’s frame, she dominates him psychologically.
Malemba’s section clues us into a dreamlike fugue state Zama begins to experience. As these episodes of psychosis increase in frequency, something like guilt clearly rises in our main character, and as his ship-out date is shunted further and further away, he’s inevitably pulled down a rabbit hole of his own making. Cacho’s strained restraint as Zama clues us into the deep reservoirs of melancholy he must hide in order to maintain his position. In Martel’s eye, he signs up to hunt down a dangerous bandit not because he’s a patriot, but because he has no other way to escape his own mind. He certainly gets more than he bargained for in the film’s final act.
If this all sounds a bit heady and arch, that’s a result of the film Martel made. But she’s also made a film that’s hilarious in an Oscar Wilde sort of way, whose punchlines are visual rather than dialogue-driven. Zama the man is a joke, but that’s kind of the point. I totally understand viewers bored by the film, but in my estimation, Martel has constructed a wildly successful work of art by sticking to her guns. Her instincts were right on the money. An unconventional satire done well is far more interesting — and I anticipate will stick with me far longer — than a hero’s journey with no subtext whatsoever.