June 19, 2018 § 2 Comments


It’s the late 18th century, in a backwater of Spain’s American empire. A man in a tricorn hat and wearing a sword stares mournfully across an expanse of water then retreats to the grassy dunes above to eavesdrop and spy on a group of Indian women laughing as they take a mud bath. When they notice they call out ‘Peeping Tom!’ and one of them gives chase until he turns and slaps her to the ground. Diego Zama is neither hero nor anti-hero, but a pathetic and ineffectual figure from the start, a magistrate of minor powers, toyed with and tantalised by his superiors and by the coquettish wife of an absent dignitary, mocked behind his back and to his face, even by his inferiors, and unable to exert authority except against those who can be enslaved.

This is not where he wants to be. Years pass with Zama thwarted at every turn in his aim of being reposted to the town where he has a wife and children. The reason may be his lesser status as a functionary not born in Spain, but as hopes are repeatedly raised then dashed in the game of bureaucratic persecution, his disappointment and anxious bafflement assume a Kafkaesque fixity.

For the greater part of Zama we as viewers have entered a world obscure in time and place, one which we cannot of course fully understand because many things stand in our way, and this is made literal by the intervention of physical obstacles to sight, such as a wooden column, mazy corridors, doorways half closed, too narrow or low, characters escaping or ducking in and out of them – it’s impossible to work out any spatial sense of interiors. The past should, after all, disorientate, and the film does this with sound too, so that we don’t always know who is speaking and where speech is coming from, and we hear unexplained noises that might express threat or violence. Exteriors shape the latter part of the film, its colours and textures blooming into a surreal madness reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, and with a beauty that also recalls (at least in my dimmed and distant memory) the films of the Brazilian, Glauber Rocha.

The Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel is of that great company, those for whom cinema can create truly new ways of seeing the world.  In Zama, she makes the past as strange as it needs to be to 21st-century eyes, giving it a visible life that’s startlingly instructive, remote from anything we might encounter in a costume drama. It’s slow-moving, yet each frame is quickened with peculiar details and perspectives. There’s the deadpan comedy of ill-fitting wigs and a wandering llama, the non-payment of salaries from Spain, itself a source of nostalgia for those who have never been there and long to exchange the lush heat of the tropics for the elegance of snow. Incongruities abound: the colourfully painted nails and grubby fingers of the powerful, male and female alike, the squalor and mess adjacent to their pretence at splendour, the musical soundtrack where the 1957 hit ‘Maria Elena’ recurs.

Its lack of penetrable meaning is part of the film’s beauty. This isn’t quite the same as mystery, unless you think of that as our sense of how the past was inhabited. Martel draws us to peer beyond what is hard to see and offers more than one viewing can take in. The film looks at us out of that past where shaky hierarchies tyrannise everyday life, and where slaves and servants, both indigenous Indian and black African, are a pervasive presence, in the frame or at its edges, almost invisible to their white masters until there’s a use for them. Martel allows us to observe how or whether they give the latter attention: sometimes looking with eloquent muteness or talking in untranslated tongues while not looking at all, all of which makes us alert to the interior life the masters might deny.

The ending? With it Zama does at last recognise himself, resigned to who he is rather than clinging to his waiting and hoping (the same verb in Spanish: esperar), and finally emboldened. It’s an Indian child who asks him a crucial question, the film’s last audible words.

The two other films I’ve seen directed by Martel, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008), have female protagonists. Both are complex and darkly concentrated on their themes in ways that can be read as commentary on Argentinian society. Zama, on a much bigger scale, is a multinational production, involving Argentina, Brazil and Spain, and many co-producers who include the Almodóvar brothers, Gael Garcia Bernal and Danny Glover. I doubt Hollywood will ever get a look in where Lucrecia Martel is concerned. May she make more masterpieces.


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