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A Review of Zama, a film by Lucrecia Martel

by John C. Koch

Zama is on the surface a contradiction – a film that brings to life a bold, challenging and exciting new cinematic language while dealing with a centuries-old and well worn historically themed narrative about Spanish imperial conquest. Telling a Beckettesque story of the quietly desperate expectations of the titular character, Martel describes her film as being a visual reconstruction of the story of Don Diego de Zama in the way he would have remembered it, not necessarily in the way he would have retold it in words or through the first-person narrative of the novel upon which it was based. This approach, similar to the one she employed with her previous film, "The Headless Woman," brings to mind the words of David Lynch's protagonist Fred Madison in "Lost Highway" when he says "“I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily the way they happened.” The result is an elliptical, sometimes banal and often times poetic recounting of ten years of Zama's life as a colonial administrator for the King of Spain. The story is told in the details, in the in-between spaces seemingly outside the passage of time, but in the process the experience of a distinct sense of time and place emerges.


To best experience Martel's films begins with a basic willingness to allow the film to unfold in its own way, on its own terms and to trust the filmmaker. The fact that this style and this experience is uncomfortable is deliberate and serves a specific end. From the viewer this film demands, perhaps paradoxically, both a certain passivity (in order to accept the absence of some cinematic norms) and an active willingness and ability to focus. It gives us a richness of layers of understanding and its rewards increase proportionally when these conditions are met.


The premise of a deeply flawed protagonist is always a challenging starting point. Audiences are generally accustomed to relating to the protagonist, and such films can potentially inspire a degree of self-reflection that creates an automatic sense of dissonance with the work. How do we engage with the violence in ourselves? What if, like Zama, our own motives are not always heroic but self-satisfying and subservient to a system that is inherently unjust? These are important questions.


Being immersed in the subjective domain of the Zama character I came away with a unique understanding of the misery, injustice and hopelessness of this world and this era of South American colonialism. Confinement is a theme of the film – confinement within a specific place and a yearning for expansion, for freedom on many levels, though the various characters are confined under very different circumstances. Martel always works in a way that allows the viewer to come to their own understanding, which serves her subject well, as it is far from the didacticism or heavy-handed moralizing that generally accompanies such work (which also seems to have a mollifying effect on viewers), and also far from any sort of anachronistic heroic reversal of the balance of power. A more authentic expression is thus more clearly revealed to those who are willing to engage on this level, though for some, not being explicitly directed how to think or react can induce a sense of vertigo.


What Martel accomplishes through the indifferent subjective view of her oppressor protagonist is a kind of psychological violence, revealed in more subtle ways that provide the viewer with a unique understanding of the daily, non-stop indignities of a life of forced servitude and ethnic oppression. The film eschews the typical obsession with scenes of intense graphic violence that have been employed by many recent works on the horrors of colonialism. Martel seems to grasp that the spiritual toxicity of such imagery risks the true meaning of the scene being lost in sensory overload. One can argue that scenes of physical violence are always governed by time not only because such acts are temporary, but also because they always contains seeds of hope – hope for the victim, hope of revenge, hope for change – through the desperate need for some sort of redemptive salve that can only exist in a subsequent scene or in some heroic denouement. But the psychological violence depicted in this film exists outside of time in an endless loop of quotidian misery that knows no end and offers no escape.


If one is looking for an epic tale with the scope of "Cabeza de Vaca" or "Aguirre Wrath of God," this may not be the film for you. Zama's experience transpires on a carefully crafted arc that bends reality and defies expectations of the genre. It is an esoteric, quiet, confined work with a much narrower focus than any typical tale of this era, but one that is ultimately a very rewarding cinematic experience.



© 2019 John C. Koch