Cast: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a man waiting. Waiting as a functionary for Spanish royalty. Waiting to file incident reports. Waiting for a letter to be written requesting his transfer out of Asunción, Paraguay and back into the cosmopolitan environment he calls home. Waiting, as he does in the opening scene, staring out across an open body of water donning a powdered wig, fancy hat, and sheathed sword. If this is seemingly a man of great importance, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama implies otherwise. Never before has the horrifying face of colonialism been this sadly deadpan. Diego may be waiting for the tide to turn (i.e. safe passage out of the wild and back into modern Spanish society), but the inherent racism of his business in Paraguay will not simply vanish. For all its dense ideas about slavery and violence, Zama often plays like a droll comedy in which the waiting man must continue waiting as bureaucratic red tape piles up.
Like in her previous films La Ciénaga and The Headless Woman, Martel uses class distinctions in order to draw out oblique thematic connections. Her camera is steady, often unmoving. The compositions are unfussy, yet the details packed into every frame are many. The tone isn't inherently comical; but her characters, especially Diego, are pompously deluded. The narrative is slipstream, fragmenting scenes and stretching out our understanding of time.
Diego's desire for transfer and the way he continues holding his head high after being ridiculed, passed over, and threatened with physical violence is part of the film's darkly comedic eccentricity. Cacho is absolutely wonderful in the role; fully inhabiting the vanity of someone uprooting another culture's way of life while layering in shades of regret, world-weariness, and social ineptitude. You might even feel bad for the guy if he didn't represent such monstrosity. Martel brilliantly displays the effects of colonialism by featuring slaves and natives going about their business in the background of shots where aristocrats perform pencil-pushing duties. In a way, they are just as unimportant to these colonizers as the horses, ostriches, birds, and in one bravura sequence; a giant Llama, which straddle into view.
As Diego's chances of escaping the hell he brought upon himself becomes even less likely, Zama takes on the atmosphere of dazed nightmare. During the film's final hallucinatory stretch, one is reminded of Radu Jude's Aferim!, João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, and to some extent, Ciro Guerra's Embrace of the Serpent. Diego's stature, once proud and upright, becomes slumped. His white wig and clean-shaven appearance disappear, replaced with a gnarled beard and thinning hair. Martel frames Diego against the vastness of rock formations and trees, making him appear small and insignificant. As he ventures deep into native land with a pack of roving soldiers, the elements of this other world overtakes his senses. The group's apparent mission, to kill a revolutionary named Vicuña Porto opposed to Spanish rule, starts feeling like a fool's errand. Is Porto already dead, or is one of Diego's fellow travelers (a scene stealing Matheus Nachtergaele) actually the revolutionary incognito? The film never makes this clear, but one thing is certain; power and dominance are empty posturing.
Zama is a major film from a major filmmaker. If, for the majority of its running time, Martel conjures a Kafka-esque vision of comic snubs and insults, then the ending feels strangely redemptive. Diego may still be waiting during the final scenes, but he has all but given up hope of returning home. He is a man waiting, sure. But waiting for what? Death, possibly. Or perhaps, lying peacefully inside a boat facing the sky, passage deeper into a geographical space he never once bothered to acknowledge beyond occupation.