When Lucrecia Martel’s Zama begins, its protagonist, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), is performing his own sovereignty on a beach. Decked out in colonial garb and jutting one leg outward toward the sea, he seems to be posturing to no one in particular, as if beckoning to some unseen God to witness his sculpting himself into a predefined role as an icon of mid-level colonial bureaucracy. Radiating a vision of masculine competence to himself and only himself, de Zama’s supreme selfhood ultimately discloses his supreme loneliness and pitifulness. He then enacts a self-authored fiction of ownership of and mastery over the island by spying on a group of native women bathing naked, assuming that he has the right (and ability) to look. With the mischievous, wicked temperament of a colonial slapstick, writer-director Martel’s film then immediately punctures his vision of self: they spot him and shoo him, nearly beating him up in the process.
Here, de Zama begins the film as an almost literal monument to the colonial enterprise, an erect beacon of the civilizational impulse. Throughout the next two hours, though, his “plight” will pervert again and again, from a devilishly quotidian workaday farce to a travesty of selfhood to a sublime portrait of cosmic absurdity, all before concluding with a final surrealistic, ostensible-escape to another world that in reality only manages to lay bare the circular inescapability of de Zama’s life all the more cruelly. Martel’s preferred cinematic subjects are the gendered and racialized politics of modern South American (particularly Argentinian) life. Adapted from Antonio de Benedetto’s 1956 book, Zama is a maddened dispatch from the birth pains of modernity that in many ways exposes the origins of these concerns, the genealogy of colonial life. An extremely noble impulse, but Zama’s genius is how ignoble it is. Martel ultimately tackles the “tortured geography” of colonialism not in the often monotone voice of historical cinema but as a dissociative fugue, the camera impishly roaming around in forgotten time with a figure trying to author his own story even though he seems to have totally missed the script.
Enshrouded in a purgatorial aura of loneliness, de Zama mindlessly plays out his functionary role with an ambivalent, faraway look in his eye, as though he’s slowly giving up on the illusion that he can truly find himself within the strictures of colonialism, that his position, and the system that underwrites it, is any path to moral, ethical, or personal superiority, let alone genuine worth. Early on in Zama, we’re already privy to his desire to return home to Spain, having asked again and again for a new assignment that would return him to his “home,” only for officials higher and often on the same plane as him to request arbitrary tasks of him, or to delay his requests indefinitely. De Zama is not only complicit with the regimes of power around him but subject to him, exercising what little power he can over the locals to mask his emasculated banality. His initial, steadfast poise at the beginning of the film becomes a mockery of stability: masculine sangfroid becomes agonizing inactivity, de Zama’s agency at a perpetual standstill.
Martel’s film derails this man’s personal ambitions time and time again, frustrating any desire for narrative progress on the way to forestalled oblivion. Perhaps expecting that South America would be his personal wilderness to tame, the location becomes a limbo for a lonely, wayward figure whose life consists of non-starters, delays, hang-ups, and apprehensive sojourns; the episodic structure of the film diffuses and disfigures any illusion of a linear story that might allow de Zama to subscribe to a teleology of personal growth or, at least, to find some illusion of causality for him to rationalize his situation (thus taming the absurdity of it). Rather than focusing on de Zama’s “quests,” Martel cunningly populates the backgrounds and margins of the frame with silent tragedies and half-glimpsed oppressions which gradually take on more weight in our mind than de Zama’s increasingly pitiful desires. Here, Martel adopts the old humanist techniques of Italian neorealism – an open frame meant to explore the pleasures of non-directed viewing and the limits of any centrally organized, protagonist-focused story – to throw de Zama’s “plight” into stark and increasingly ludicrous relief, a gesture that is most ruefully apparent in one truly genius moment when a stray Llama up and wanders into the foreground of the frame as de Zama is laying his soul bare. This much more comfortable wanderer seems totally indifferent to the man’s concerns as Martel’s camera looks on in nefarious, stone-faced glee.
The llama moment has garnered more attention than any other sequence of the film, but I was most partial to a much later zoological intervention. While the llama wanders into the foreground to dismember the film’s human loci of attention, an astonishing and absolutely droll inversion of this earlier moment near the film’s end shows a horse in close-up, facing away from us and staring at de Zama and the other characters in the far background. Then, the horse turns its head back around to stare directly into the camera in a gesture that communicates its absolute disinterest in a human conflict that seems absurdly foolish and irrelevant to it. Rather than the animal disputing the film’s attention, as in the earlier bit, this moment simultaneously implicates us in the spectatorial regimes of humankind and suggests that the most legitimate gaze onto what is increasingly a harebrained fracas is the thoroughly quizzical, brutally indifferent vision of this animal, a being which refuses – in its absurdity – to even be metaphorized, to “mean” something we can latch on to and thereby contain in a prison of simile.
Both aforementioned images, not to mention the film’s opening, draw us to the film’s absolutely faultless management of foreground-background tension, but it also signals its astonishingly casual visual mastery more widely. If the tone undercuts de Zama’s banal posturing with prickly comedy, the wide frames offer cosmic, expansive compositions which render the nominal protagonist’s self-possession and his supposed supremacy over this pitiless expanse a posture of imposture. The narrative structure wrings dry any sense of accomplishment, offering a fractured and deliberately unsatisfactory tempo that furnishes a sense of de-centered suspension, a series of pyrrhic quests defined not by transcendence but supreme inertia.
Even the canniest Western-language films about European colonialists prey to their own delusions of mastery or purpose– from Lawrence of Arabia all the way on down to the recent The Lost City of Z – tend to sympathize with the desire – in the abstract – to “find” oneself through exotic adventure. These films tend to lament only that their tragically doomed protagonists could not ultimately imagine any way to launder these dreams without folding them into the rhetoric and logic of colonialism, even if hesitantly. In practice, this tends to mean that the films disown colonialism but mostly empathize with the failure of the Westerner who can’t escape the logic of colonialism that almost always subtends adventure, construed rhetorically as “personal” to efface the “political”.
Martel unbuttons this impulse, letting loose the shadows that travel in tandem with it. She’s more critical of colonialism, but also of the delusory claim to “adventure” to begin with. In particular, the aspiration to view this territory as a wilderness for personal cultivation is the subject of the film’s final quarter, where de Zama goes on a manhunt for a wanted figure that he hopes will either regain his favor and grant him his long-awaited reprieve, or, more immediately, to lend even an ounce of excitement back into his life. As the film slowly tilts into deranged surrealism, this sequence transforms into a fabulistic mockery of de Zama’s attempt to find peace in this adventure of the mind, almost a surreal parody of his desire to impose the progressive rhythms and fanciful look of an adventure onto this forbidding expanse. It offers de Zama the adventure he wants, and then turns him inside out with it. (This sensibility is never more-so than in the almost venomously misfit soundtrack, all anachronistic, mid-century Latin music which tends to mock the film’s visual style by contrapuntally conjuring a mood of exotic escapade).
In this final, astonishing sequence, the film renders genealogy as absurdity, venturing far beyond any rudimentary historical “objectivity”, playing instead like a Kafkaesque pageant of punishments before jumping off the deep end past evidentiary basis entirely and into a portrait of a truly lost soul totally adrift in Martel’s great derangement. But Zama doesn’t overly-signpost its surrealistic tributaries by heavily or overtly marking “surreality” as an obvious digression from a pre-assumed “realism,” a clean bifurcation which would only ingratiate us by mimicking what we presume to be our reality. Rather than marking off the real and the surreal for us to easily separate from each other – “history” vs “falsity” – Zama is history as theater of the absurd, tethering us to a deeply felt, tactile experience that nonetheless can’t be written-off as “reality” as we know it. Instead of a moment of respite from the emotional dolor of bureaucracy, this final, feverish faux-reprieve only furthers de Zama’s participation in and subjection to the moral economy of colonialism. He desperately tries to anchor himself to the ship of colonialism only to find himself both its captain and scraping barnacles on the ocean floor, witness to an abyssal existence that doesn’t always stop to check what uniform the object of its punishment is wearing. De Zama is clearly an instigator of colonial torment, but in Martel’s purgatory, he is also the target of it.