Zama (2018) by Lucrecia Martel
Review by Nathan Smith
One of the first words we hear in Zama, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel’s adaptation of the novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, is “voyeur,” an accusation laid against the title character, an official working on behalf of the Spanish empire in South America, by a group of women he watches bathe on the beach. Zama flees as one of the women pursues him, only to turn around and strike her down. It is this inciting incident that frames the rest of the film and its perspective on colonialism: not as violence against women per se, but as voyeurism. The indigenous and enslaved persons in the film are often pushed to the margins of the frame, but they are not absent; Martel shows them watching their oppressors as much as their oppressors watch them.
Martel’s cinema is fundamentally a voyeur’s cinema: it is a cinema of bodies. But we must distinguish a voyeur’s cinema from a voyeuristic cinema, as there is little pleasure to be extracted from viewing the bodies she offers up onscreen. We are made to watch, but despite the sumptuous, sensorial quality of her work, we are not meant to take pleasure in what we watch. Zama is a fever dream, a visual palette of varied tones and textures married to an exquisite and uncanny soundscape, but it is also a nightmare.
In La Ciénaga, Martel’s debut feature, her camera swam through a murky cacophony of characters. Bodies were always too close for comfort, almost incestuous, as was the camera, never grounded or impartial, always a rowdy participant in the action. Martel has little time for narrative exposition or explanation, and she offers few visual cues to illuminate a clear path. We feel both removed and claustrophobic. Characters are often indistinct, the minutia of their relationships left a guessing game beyond gestures and glances, but we are thrust headfirst into their sensory experience regardless, with little room to breathe.
In Zama, Martel’s compositions are much more static, almost tableau-like, with considerably few close-ups, insert shots, or cutaways. Her blocking takes on the role that camera movement did in La Ciénaga, collapsing the space between viewer and subject. There is little distance or depth, both in terms of how characters are positioned in relation to one another and in how the audience is positioned in relation to the bodies onscreen. Like in La Ciénaga, there is almost a sort of violence committed against these bodies; the edge of the frame has a tendency to decapitate those in the background, rendering a figure sin cabeza. The frame is crowded, filled with traffic, often inhabited by a number of forms – human and animal, freed and slave, indigenous and invader – moving in and out of view. This claustrophobia bleeds into paranoia: someone is always there, always hovering, always watching, even if Zama never knows it. The frame begins to suffocate from the abundance of bodies adding to the sweltering heat, just like Zama himself suffocates from stagnation.
Except for brief moments of frenzy and fury, Zama stands in contrast to the constant movement within the frame, unable to rise above his condition and take action. He is passive and still. Zama is a man mired in a bureaucratic swamp, alienated in what is to him an alien land. Martel’s characters are often unequipped to handle the challenges of the environments they inhabit, whether the alcoholic mother in La Ciénaga, always demanding more ice for her sweating wine glass, or Don Diego de Zama himself, whose onscreen arc is one long descent into a humid hell. He desperately seeks to return home to his wife and family, but his requests are delayed, belittled, or forgotten.
The universe mocks Zama in the most absurd of ways; despite the period setting and bleakness of the film's subject matter, an appropriately absurdist strain of comedy runs through it. Zama’s the horniest man alive, but constantly curved by the women he pursues. Words are repeated back to him over and over, and questions go unanswered. The soundtrack, a series of bright folk guitar compositions that stand in marked contrast to Zama's simmering suffering, seems to tease him. When Zama does finally take charge of a mission to capture the outlaw Vicuna Porto, the gods laugh in his face once again. In one of the film’s most uncanny moments, even a llama seems to taunt him. As my friend Steve Macfarlane has pointed out, Zama bears more than a passing resemblance to Curb Your Enthusiasm.
Violence is committed against him, too, but a more subtle kind: death by a thousand cuts, slow-roasting malaria in a jungle of crystal coconuts, open wounds bleeding out into hot sand. Whether this violence is the result of his voyeurism and his failure to act, or if they’re his cosmic just deserts as an agent of Spanish imperialism, is unclear. But the film does gesture at some mystic force, something beyond Zama, slowly nudging him toward his inevitable fate.
In his writing on science fiction, literary critic Darko Suvin identifies “cognitive estrangement,” the making unfamiliar of the familiar, as the organizing principle of the genre. Through this lens, science fiction becomes broader but also more fascinating: even The Divine Comedy, a journey to both the center of the earth and the great gig in the sky, could be read as sci-fi. Perhaps then we could consider Zama, despite its historical lineage and period setting, a science fiction film, one that seeks to make so much unfamiliar: sense, bodies, history.
Few films I can think of (other than perhaps Tomás Gutiérrez Alea’s La Última Cena, which like Zama has a Buñuelian impulse) have ever captured the fraught tenuousness of the colonial relationship and the paranoia that must have accompanied it. There is a true sense in this film that the whole Spanish imperial project could collapse at any time, that, no matter how many natives the Spanish might kill, this is not their land. To the Europeans, the “discovery” of the Americas was an alien encounter; to the indigenous peoples, it was an alien invasion. Martel has conjured an alien and paranoid world, as alien and paranoid as the first encounter must have been to both colonized and colonizer.
We are reminded, due to Martel’s careful attention to sense and image, of the connection between voyeurism and colonialism: both seek to conquer and claim that which can be seen, whether through physical force or fantasy. But we are also reminded how very strange this American world is. Zama becomes our Dante on this expedition, Martel our Virgil, but they lead us nowhere. Zama’s hell is continuous, unceasing, and inescapable. So too is the fractured world created by colonialism and imperialism, a hell so few seem capable of escaping, even in death.