Review: Zama (2017)


Director: Lucrecia Martel | 120 minutes | drama | Actors: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano, Mariana Nunes, Daniel Veronese, Carlos Defeo, Rafael Sp Regelburd, Jorg Román, Camila Sosa

Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a Corregidor, a colonial officer of the Spanish Empire who controls an area in present-day Paraguay for the crown. He has not seen his family for fourteen months and is waiting for a new appointment in Buenos Aires, a more important post in South America. The longer he waits in vain, the worse he is mentally.
Director Lucretia Martel has made a poetic, difficult to access film that looks very beautiful, but will certainly not be to everyone’s taste. Anyone willing to embrace the film will be in for a special experience.

With a lot of symbolism and a gloomy view of human life, Martel manages to create a fascinating portrait that is not easily captured in a category. The isolation of a ruling minority in a foreign environment. With oppressive heat that is well captured in sweaty shirts, shiny bodies and in the sloppy wigs of the Spanish officers. There is not much to do except exploit and abuse the locals. The contrast between the two groups is about the only element emphasized. The film also has a surreal sense of humor, which makes scenes seem funny that are actually more tragic or bizarre. Zama’s attempts to capture a legendary local bandit are certainly tragicomic. Just like his failed flirt attempts with a Spanish lady (Lola Dueñas).

Martel consciously chooses to mislead the viewer by following up on alienating, overlapping dialogues with scenes that feel like a dissonance in what is just starting to look like a coherent story. The feeling is that not everything Don Diego experiences actually happens and that what is shown is a reflection of his flaking mental state. He, the colonial oppressor, tries to dominate his environment, but gradually discovers that he has hardly any grip on his environment full of servants, slaves and local tribes in what must feel like the end of the world.

“Zama” is mainly a kind of “experience” that must be undergone. The colors, the sounds of nature – it is almost a shame that Martel did not have the ability to convey scent to the viewer. On the surface, not much is actually happening and the lack of a plot may turn viewers off and dismiss the movie as “boring”. It does take some effort to really appreciate the film. The disturbing sounds that always come from just outside the picture are a brilliant find that will certainly stay with you.

Ultimately, “Zama” also feels frustrating and the strength of the film also becomes a weakness due to the long lack of structure. The perspective almost naturally lies with the titular protagonist. However, this also means that the position of the local population remains underexposed. In the last part of the film, Martel still manages to connect the loose threads to a beautiful, thought-provoking ending.

The film is based on Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name, which has long been a hidden masterpiece. There was only an (award-winning) English translation in 2016. “Zama” was also the entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film on behalf of Argentina, but did not receive any awards.

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