Europe is best remembered by those who were never there.
A man speaks about a fish rejected by the water it needs to breathe, swimming back and forth to fight that current of repulsion and stay alive in the hopes of earning an opportunity to be desired, valued, and worthy of the life God has given to it. He could very well be talking about the titular put-upon protagonist of Lucrecia Martel‘s Zama. The character’s name is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) and he’s desperate for validation whether from the governor who promised his Corregidor (the title local administrative and judicial officials receive) a promotion and transfer back home to be with the wife and children he left behind or the women here in Paraguay who seem to lust after every other man but him.
We meet the Corregidor caught in a perpetual series of embarrassments. Adapted from Antonio Di Benedetto‘s well-regarded Argentinian novel, Martel is quick to expose Zama as the opportunist devoid of charisma and scruples he is. The opening scene presents him as a voyeur spying upon women bathing by the beach, his being caught leading to a fit of rage despite him being in the wrong. Next is a discussion with the governor about his inability to get a prisoner to speak only for a younger official (Juan Minujín‘s Ventura Prieto) to swoop in with the confidence to get the job done. Zama almost always possesses a look of confusion mixed with fear, his hope of being exceptional only outweighed by his anxiety at being discovered as anything but.
He’ll literally do anything to put extra wind in his sails despite these attempts seeming destined to fail. When a visitor (Carlos Defeo‘s El Oriental) arrives with a shipment of alcohol, Zama takes the man under his wing despite him being gravely ill. He uses those casks to have reason to flirt with the coveted Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), unaware she’s leading him on to get what she wants instead. And when the aftermath of a brawl allows the party being deported to receive everything Zama yearned for himself, we realize even his greatest luck buries him further down into his purgatorial existence. All he has is a lie about vanquishing the dreaded criminal Vicuña Porto—but that’s not enough for sex, money, or power either.
Martel draws it with an expertly dark comedic timing courtesy of Cacho’s exasperated central performance and an unforgettably visceral sound design. Oftentimes it’s as though Zama is truly going crazy from the inaction of his status, the music blaring with a dull ring as animals lumber over to gaze at us through the camera. She’s turned record-scratch punch lines into out-of-body experiences wherein we’re somehow watching this man’s defeated moment of clarity and inside his head when it occurs. It will put you off-balance, the sound taking your feet out from under you as though you’re feeling this vertigo-like recognition that you too cannot escape. A dream-like quality takes over the whole, Zama’s nightmarish progression downwards a delightful comeuppance for a colonist who helped enslave a continent.
First it’s his rejection as a suitor—even by the mistress with which he’d already fathered an illegitimate child. That fear of being forever alone causes him to remember the family he has back home and cannot visit. Next it’s his inability to advance his career thanks to the governor who liked him leaving and his successor holding an outrageously unimportant grudge. This leads to more isolation as the excesses he had enjoyed are removed. And finally we find Zama as a shadow of his former self, defeated and haggard with nothing more than a suicide mission to potentially get him out of what’s become a godforsaken nation in his mind. The irony? Leaving this black hole means he’ll have to return with the head of Vicuña Porto.
So Zama is stepped on, ignored, and pulled in every direction but the one he’s settled on following. It’s a comedy of errors of bleakly dystopian existentialism, the farce of his successes leading him right where we thought his failures would nothing short of brilliant. Like other films with similarly dry and somber machinations (Terry Gilliam‘s Brazil and Richard Ayoade‘s The Double—the latter of which was based on a Fyodor Dostoevsky short story, the Russian author said to be an influence on Di Benedetto’s novel—come to mind), its density can get overwhelming with initial thoughts of repetition only fading in hindsight. And its usual fodder for dismal and drab aesthetics getting the South American palm tree and sun treatment is a literal breath of fresh air.
This setting lets the peripheral characters really flesh things out his unearned entitlement. Whether it’s the Black native dressed in blue popping up to wait and announce the latest trip to the principal’s office Zama must take or the second governor’s simple-minded footman, some of the best comic relief arrives from silent expressions. Add the manic Gaspar Toledo (Matheus Nachtergaele) in act three with a stunningly delicious revelation and we can no longer trust we’re watching reality. For all we know Zama has officially lost his sanity with heatstroke and dehydration putting ideas into his head that align with his thus far horrible luck. Only in the end do we learn the truth and recognize that not even death could save him from his permanent New World exile.
Watched in conjunction with my Buffalo, NY film series Cultivate Cinema Circle.
courtesy of Strand Releasing