Early in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, her dreamy intent and languid images begin to nestle into place. First we witness Spanish corregidor (“mayor”) Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, whose eyes bear lifetimes of disappointment and resignation) on the shore of a nondescript river, in charge of a desolate Spanish colonial outpost in the middle of nowhere South America, though he seems to be more inhabiting it than litigating its quotidian. Catching a group of native women bathing, he steals a glance but is immediately found out, chased from the beach. Slapping one of the women to assert his dominance, Zama’s violent reaction feels preposterous, the response of a person with no control over himself, or his lot in life. This land rejects this sad man.
Then, some time later—Martel offers no real idea of how much time elapses between scenes, weeks measured only in facial hair and subconscious notions—Zama shows up for work. A native prisoner, his dark skin portending something ill in the middle of a cadre of lily white men sporting scrappy powdered wigs, appears to be on trial—for what, it doesn’t matter. When Zama’s second in command, the lithe and cocky foil, Ventura Prieto (Juan Minujín), releases the prisoner due to a lack of confession, or any hint of a crime (perhaps because he’s black, Martel implies), the prisoner runs head-first into a wall. Lying on the floor, reminded he’s still under oath, the downed man croaks, “There’s a fish that spends its life swimming to and fro. Fighting water that seeks to cast it upon dry land. Because the water rejects it. The water doesn’t want it.”
The metaphor, cryptically uttered by the concussed man, applies as well to colonialism as to Zama himself. All Zama wants is for his superior, the sweaty and evasive Governor (Daniel Veronese), to write him a letter to the Spanish Crown, recommending Zama’s transfer to somewhere, anywhere, less physically taxing and more civilizationally minded, preferably to Buenos Aires, where Zama’s wife and small children wait, deigning to send him letters. Shuffled about by a barely functioning bureaucracy, Zama wanders from room to room, portico to portico, slaves and natives and colonists alike eyeing him wherever we goes with barely veiled, wordless displeasure. No one says anything as to why they don’t like Zama much. It’s just a feeling we have about a feeling they have.
Martel and cinematographer Rui Poças (whose worked with Miguel Gomes and, recently, with João Pedro Rodrigues on the exquisitely pretty The Ornithologist) dedicate nearly every frame to Zama’s melancholy maundering, though rarely allowing him the dignity to ever be the most interesting figure in any particular shot, that is, when they aren’t up close, searching his lined mug for something representing courage or assertiveness. Stranded in a thankless government job, not so much forgotten by the system as just avoided, Zama is a colonist renounced by both the colonized and colonizers. Zama is literally post-colonial: Colonists negate Diego de Zama’s colonialism by negating him, an equation Martel and Poças externalize by photographing with foreboding beauty the jungle around the pathetic man, reducing him to a meaningless, replaceable figure amidst effortlessly mighty landscapes.
Zama’s attempt to seduce an official’s wife (Lola Dueñas), maybe to find a way home or maybe to preserve some sense of aristocracy in such a primitive place, fails, of course; likewise, Zama’s bid to finally get something out of the Governor, even if it means condemning the one person who doesn’t treat Zama with disdain, amounts to nothing. The world twists and turns with an irrational lack of consequence or causation behind Zama’s noggin—including a llama at one point sauntering through an office, stopping to peer into the back of Zama’s tri-corner hat, then prancing away—colonial tableaus emerging and then disappearing without rhyme or reason as Zama’s life moves toward its end to no particular pace or discernible passage of time. He’s adrift, everything he does and every word he says a flailing, futile gesture.
Like the assurance that he’ll ever see his family again—or, his first family, because as one could expect, Zama impregnates a local—another ghost haunts the fringes of Zama’s outpost: Vicuña Porto, a mythical outlaw causing all sorts of trouble for the Spanish Empire. He’s supposedly dead until he supposedly isn’t, the rotting ears hung around the Governor’s neck a sign of both Vicuña Porto’s vanquishing and the Governor’s obsession until they’re not, then just a sign of a fat, useless politician having no real power over the land on top of which he squats, easily fooled by the incomprehensible world he supposedly rules.
Akin to Vicuña Porto, Zama stands wraith-like at the edge of everyone’s perspectives, but unlike Vicuña Porto, Zama wants nothing but that which he so obviously is unfit to have. Vicuña Porto takes what Vicuña Porto wants—if Vicuña Porto exists at all—and Zama waits, melancholic, for what he feels he’s earned. Which hardly matters: There is no cosmic justice setting order to this world, no hope that can manifest what one hopes for by simply hoping. When Zama realizes this, the film breaks wide open. Its illusory spell shutters under such harsh truth. Cacho plays Zama’s slow deterioration with heartbreaking grace, never letting the gravity of the man’s doom overcome his uncertainty at just how absurdly doomed he may actually be. “I do for you what no one did for me. I say no to your hope,” he tells a group of men, and they punish him for letting so much of his life pass before finally giving up on the hope he’s harbored for far too long.
“Do you want to live?” Zama’s asked at the end of the film. He doesn’t respond. With her third film, Lucrecia Martel wonders, in wide swathes of unmitigated wilderness and weird, inexplicable poetry, just how far one’s wants can go. Bewitching and masterfully rendered, Zama is an elegant, ravishing, often delightfully strange achievement. It is reportedly the result of an interminable production process, of a difficult and substantial edit, of a novel that resists adaptation. It wants little more than to reach out in all directions, to peer into the void, knowing deep down that the void can’t be bothered to peer back.
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Writer: Lucrecia Martel; Antonio di Benedetto (novel)
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Daniel Veronese
Release Date: April 13, 2018
Dom Sinacola is Associate Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. You can follow him on Twitter.