Zama’s offbeat but formally rigorous compositions of its protagonist’s profound alienation from his own position of modest power are the seeds of Martel’s earlier, contemporary pictures.
Lucrecia Martel’s filmography is one of claustrophobia, of sheltered bourgeois characters gradually suffocating in the myopia they erect around themselves. Zama, set during the period of Spain’s colonization of Argentina, offers an immediate stylistic departure from her earlier films. Wide vistas of Argentinean coastline capture sunlight-refracting water and verdant grass along hilly topographies. Shots are filled with Spanish colonials and natives alike, allowing for multiplanar compositions with separate actions at various distances and along separate heights of the terrain.
Fundamentally, however, this remains a study in insularity, the film’s landscapes always constrained by the self-pitying perspective of Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a local corregidor (magistrate) who gazes out over the beautiful landscape with a look on his face that can only be described as utterly miserable. The camera tends to place him in the foreground at one side of the frame, leaving the empty space to be filled by background details of movement, usually the labor of indigenous slaves. Martel never lingers over slavery, never indulges in gratuitous displays of violence to cynically remind an audience of its evil even as casual reference is made to torture. Instead, she remains rooted in the narcissism of her protagonist and his colonial mindset, treating slavery as such a casual fact of life as to be barely noticed, though one’s eye is always pointedly drawn to these ancillary figures as Zama, drenched in flop sweat and slack from boredom, dominates the space closest to the camera with his endless huffing over being stuck in this place despite his position of comfort and authority.
Zama spends his days in a brainfog of static frustration. Enduring office hours in which people come to air their grievances about various land and rights disputes, the corregidor can scarcely keep his eyes open as he performs his modest responsibilities. Zama devotes far more energy to his own suits to officials, constantly pressing to be sent home from this humid nightmare. Amusingly, the magistrate seems to be the only constant in an ever-rotating series of bureaucrats, to the extent that Zama frequently beseeches the governor to write to the king, only to return a few days later to find that there is a new governor who has just started and has no record of this request from his predecessor. Thus the film trudges through a purgatorial morass, generating strange, dark magic from the protagonist’s fixed position among shifting appearances among stranger and stranger people – among them a child carried in a chair on a servant’s back who whispers abstract tales that may or may not be about Zama, or figures who appear in darkened doorways with ominous warnings.
Martel has long been a master of depicting solipsism, and she only expands upon her form here. The director uses the edges of the frame to cut up people and objects, so that one might only see the rear half of a horse as it is brushed, or a lady’s fingers distractingly fidgeting on the hat in her lap as she meets with Zama. These subtle but incessant disorientations bring the viewer into the roving attention span of the protagonist, the dulled ennui embodied by the static shots complicated and charged by a constant search for something to interest him. Perhaps the only character who is consistently placed fully within a frame is Luciana (Lola Dueñas), a local aristocrat whose vivaciousness marks her against the subliminal misery around her. Resting idly in her home, where relaxing blue walls offer the first sense of comfort away from the coastal heat and humidity,that relief is all over Zama’s face when he is around her. His infatuation is unmistakable, especially to her, and she weaves clues of her disinterest to her oblivious suitor, noting in one conversation how her bold independence makes other women jealous but also causes men to misunderstand her, leaving unsaid that they see romantic interest in her attentive, frank speech where it does not exist.
The dull rota of the first half give way to yet another assignment dangled in front of Zama as a ticket home, in this case a mission to find and eliminate Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), a thief wreaking havoc on trade routes. Porto’s almost mythical ability to attack and disappear surrounds him with legends and rumors, and the hunting expedition taken to capture him takes on a similarly reality-bending surrealism. If Zama’s life in the colony settled into the sedateness that follows brutal suppression, the countryside offers a rougher clash of colonial and tribal violence that sees order break down almost immediately. Skirmishes unfold as baffling ambushes where red-painted natives burst from long grass to land a maelstrom of surprise attacks, and there exists the possibility that the search party set out with its target among them all along.
In Zama’s offbeat but formally rigorous compositions of its protagonist’s profound alienation from his own position of modest power are the seeds of Martel’s earlier, contemporary pictures, in which the descendants of Spain’s colonizers and conquistadors lounge in luxury they take for granted and find stultifying. Martel’s use of sound remains breathtaking in its scope, presenting wide fields of offscreen space (in this case using an interminably loud chorus of insect buzzing) to highlight the limits of the frame and the perspective it represents. Zama feels oppressed by his surroundings when he, in fact, is the oppressor, and his feeling of overwhelmed confusion matches an ambivalent, insoluble look at the impact of colonialism from a director acknowledging her inextricable connection to that history. The film’s final images, of a withered Zama trapped forever in his purgatorial state and a stretch of nature wholly indifferent to its occupants, leaves this brutally funny, unexpectedly terrifying on a haunting note of irresolution.