Credit where it’s due: Few films have done more to unite the international film community than “Zama.” The minutes-long opening titles list over 20 different production companies and regional supports. The nominally Argentinian film is a joint venture between nine other countries as well, and the end credits name figures as diverse as Danny Glover, Pedro Almodóvar, and Gael Garcia Bernal among the many other who jumped on to help this project through a troubled, many year production. Finally complete, Lucrecia Martel’s film promises to be significantly more divisive.
Technically an adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto acclaimed modernist novel, “Zama” reads just as much like an open declaration of war against the line that separates form and content. The source text told the story of an 18th century magistrate driven to madness while waiting for his next post; the film forces the viewer to go mad right there with him.
That man is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho, of “Bad Education”), an elite servant of the Spanish crown stationed in the remotest point of what we now know as Paraguay. In the film’s opening shot, he’s a regally dressed, high-shouldered beacon of Spanish imperial power. But as he stares longingly on the beach, we can see that’s already aching to escape. And that’s the best he ever looks in the narratively threadbare tale, which basically tracks his dawning realization that he’s just as much a prisoner as the slaves he commands.
The film’s uncompromising aesthetic and deliberate pace may prove too steep a hurdle for many a viewer, even for those who wowed by the director’s previous films. While films like “The Headless Woman” and “The Holy Girl” also tied themselves to the lead’s subjective experience, both took place in the here-and-now, benefitting from a readily understandable context wholly apart from the alien colonial world of “Zama.” By eschewing any real exposition or situational cues, Martel forces viewers to either go all in all at once, or to never meaningfully connect.
Viewers that are willing to meet the film at its very particular wavelength will find themselves lulled into a state of confused delirium. As Zama meanders through his outskirts post, he finds himself in a number of recurring situations. There are the frequent visits with Luciana (Lola Dueñas), a colonial matron who constantly rebuffs his advances, or his repeated visits with local governor, played by three different actors so to indicate the cruel advance of time while our lead remains maddeningly inert. Often in lieu of linear dialogue the script will repeat the same lines again and again, using them as kind of incantation to bring on that state of feverishness.
As the film goes on, that delirium will infect the very dialogue itself. Characters will deliver lines out of conversational order, as if an actor tasked with reading three sentences delivered them in any he or she chose. Sometimes the fever attacks grammar itself, like at one point, where Zama looks to native girl who may or may not be his former mistress and notes, “that boy, she’s holding my son.”
All the while, many species of animals chirp, growl, and howl off-screen, and do so with metonymic timing. Sound designer Guido Berenblum and sound editor Gerardo Kalmar greatly enhance the film’s hypnotic pull with textured audio landscape, rife with the unnatural sounds of nature and pitched just too loud so as to be disquieting. The film employs an equally uncanny visual approach, sometimes speeding up individual bits of action to point that they feel cartoonish, and bathing a number of late-in-film sequences with colors too vivid to feel real.
But one can reasonably wonder just what it all means. Giménez Cacho tracks Zama’s long descent from despair to delirium with expressive physicality, but that remains the only narrative through line in what is otherwise two hours of impressionistic, purely experiential cinema. As an existential objet d’art “Zama” stands as a serious achievement. But that won’t prevent even the most sophisticated of cinephiles from staggering out of the theater, wondering “What in the world did I just see?”
“Zama” premiered at the 2017 Venice International Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.