Director: Lucrecia Martel
Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Rafael Spregelburd, Nahuel Cano, Mariana Nunes, Daniel Veronese
Watch Zama online in the UK: Curzon Home Cinema
Adapted from a classic 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto (which only received its first English language translation in 2016), Zama marks a return to the screen for acclaimed Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, 10 years after her previous feature, The Headless Woman. It’s fair to say that it has been worth the wait – this is a remarkable, mesmerising and uniquely strange film that weaves a captivating spell.
Set in a remote outpost in what is now Asunción, on the Paraguay River, the film stars Daniel Giménez Cacho as Don Diego de Zama, an 18th century magistrate in the service of the Spanish crown. Long since separated from his own wife and child back home, Zama is engaged in an interminable wait for a transfer to the city of Lerma and repeatedly petitions his superior to write to the King on his behalf. However, despite continual promises, the transfer never materialises and Zama is left in limbo, until he volunteers to lead a mission to track down the notorious, near legendary bandit Vicuña Porto, whose murderous antics perhaps hold the key to Zama’s administrative misfortunes.
Using vivid colours and a bewildering soundscape that encompasses indigenous bird song, insect noises, strange, industrial-like sounds and an anachronistic surf-music tune by Los Indios Tabajaros, Martel creates an entrancing, dreamlike atmosphere that is both haunting and disorienting, perfectly capturing Zama’s aimless existence. She also includes a number of delightfully surreal touches, the highlight of which is a scene-stealing llama that wanders into shot, looks around and then wanders out again during a meeting in a magistrate’s office.
The Kafkaesque nature of Zama’s bureaucratic ordeal is reflected in his social life, which unspools as an endless cycle of erotic or romantic frustration, whether it’s being chased off after spying on naked village women taking a mud bath or his hopeless flirtation with a coquettish noblewoman (Almodovar regular Lola Dueñas). Each of these scenarios, along with Zama’s jealous interactions with his office rivals (one of whom is “punished”, by receiving the transfer he desires) is tinged with equal parts jet black comedy and melancholy, while also serving as a subtle critique of ineffectual colonialism.
In a similar way, the film constantly presents Zama as being at odds with his environment, through both his placement within the frame (he’s frequently poised at the edge), or narratively, in his at-arm’s-length relationships with the local population, including the village woman with whom he has fathered a child. Later, as the search for Porto yields unexpected results, Zama’s interactions take on a fevered intensity, with nightmarish consequences.
Daniel Giménez Cacho is perfectly cast as Zama, his strong, unwavering features remaining impassive throughout his endless humiliations, while still displaying his absurd sense of entitlement – in many ways, he’s like an 18th century Basil Fawlty, only without the explosive temper. There’s also colourful support from Lola Dueñas, who’s delightful in her interactions with Zama, interrupting his reverie about Russian princesses in fur coats to remark that Europe is “best remembered by those who were never there”.
Sumptuously shot, superbly acted and darkly funny, this is a deeply strange, intoxicating film that exerts a tight grip on your subconscious and doesn’t let go. An experience to be savoured.
Zama is available now in UK cinemas and on Curzon Home Cinema.