As usual in South Florida, the Miami Beach Cinematheque has stepped up to offer one of the strangest, most challenging movies you will see at the art house this year. I’ve heard about Lucrecia Martel’s Zama for well over a year. It has now been 10 years since the Argentine director’s last feature film The Headless Woman, a disturbing and marvelous movie. She became a filmmaker to watch since her disturbing feature debut La Ciénaga. The Holy Girl came next, and with every film she has evolved, but nothing in her past work can really prepare those familiar with it for the sophistication of Zama, an adaptation of the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto.
Hallucinatory, banal, stark and colorful, the film follows Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a seventeenth century Spanish officer assigned to Asunción, a new settlement in Argentina, waiting to be transferred to Buenos Aires. Little happens as far as pushing plot forward, save for the recurring mention of a villainous character named Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), who we won’t meet until the film’s final half hour, though plenty of doubt has been planted whether this truly is Vicuña by the time he appears. There’s clear tension between the natives and the Spaniards, who, despite their bright uniforms, sloppily don those recognizable pony-tailed white wigs of the period over disheveled, greasy hair and unshaven faces. It’s a subversion of the costume drama that speaks to the ambivalence of the colonizers who cut a sloppy, destructive path in a foreign land with little regards to the rights and culture of the indigenous people.
Much of the film’s early action happens in similar, slight detail, mostly during the film’s first hour-and-a-half. It’s trademark Martel, who likes to capture human existence in banal, unfocused or subtle details. It’s an approach that rewards those who can appreciate the subtleties of cinema. There’s hardly a score, save for the occasional appearance of the oddly out of place tropical Brazilian folk by Los Indios Tabajaras. More importantly, and established in a breathtaking opening shot at the beach featuring Zama looking out into the blue ocean from the yellow/brown shoreline, are occasional outbursts of diegetic laughter from background players. It mocks the notion of any kind of Western civilization in this land that grows more surreal as Zama strains to find an exit somehow.
The action often occurs at either a distance or in such close-up as to disorient and alienate the viewer. Alienation is key to this movie, and to stay true to that Martel never hits you over the head with it. The spectre of Vicuña Porto shifts upon the recurring mention of his name in dialogue. Is he at large? Might have he already been killed or brought to justice? This imprint of a boogeyman is the closest thing Martel allows for some grounding in a loosely plotted film that’s more concerned with creating atmosphere than offering a direct story. When Zama finally takes a crew out of Asunción and into the swamps toward Brazil there are encounters with new natives whose otherness almost feels like science fiction, but ultimately the real devil lies within the notion of civility in relation to colonization. That a film can reveal such darkness with such beautiful imagery, disturbing actions and lulling pacing speaks to the strength of what is truly Argentina’s most interesting filmmakers.
Zama runs 115 minutes, is in Spanish and Portuguese with English subtitles and is not rated. It opens exclusively in our South Florida area at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. UPDATE: the movie begins a run at both Savor Cinema and Cinema Paradiso Hollywood on Friday, May 18. For screenings in other cities across the U.S., visit the film’s official website and select the “screenings” tab. Strand Releasing provided an on-line screener for the purpose of this review.