Zama, 22nd June 2018
Now here is a work of imagination. Just what film is for. I suspect its languorous pace might not be to everyone’s taste but it delicately captures the sense of isolation and ennui that its hero, the eponymous Diego de Zama finds himself trapped in.
We are in Asuncion on the Paraguay River in the C18. Zama has been scantily rewarded with a position as a government magistrate in the service of the Spanish Empire after his exploits in battle, an americano born in present day Argentina, desperate to return to his family in Buenos Aries after many years away. His oft-promised transfer requires the imprimatur of the ministry in Madrid and that requires a letter from the Governor. Meanwhile Zama has to just get on with the unlovely business of life in a colonial outpost, flirting with the wives of the ruling elite, avoiding the temptations of the local prostitutes and drowning his sorrows in drink. Daniel Jimenez Cacho brings a palpable sexual frustration to Zama, alongside the barrenness of his emotional and intellectual landscape. You sense his despair at the hand that fate has dealt him and his own shame at the man he has become. The film opens with him spying on some indigenous women bathing in mud on the banks of the river. Not a good look.
The setting is magnificent. Interiors and exteriors look and feel totally authentic. Nature intrudes. The heat is oppressive. Cholera is endemic. Domesticated animals wander in and out of buildings. The colonisers and colonised are entwined. Indeed it turns out that Zama himself has a child with a local woman. The colonisers don’t have much to do here at the end of the world. Zama has a few cases to deal with, one of which exposes the ugly racism embedded in his office, and precipitates a scrap with his Spanish subordinate, who, much to Zama’s chagrin is “punished” by being sent away. A new, even less sympathetic Governor, replaces the incumbent when he returns to Spain and he takes over Zama’s quarters forcing him into a decrepit shack on the outskirts of the outpost. Early on Zama steps in, unconvincingly, to protect the honour of the local inn-keeper’s daughters, later on he fails to have an affair with the Governor’s wife.
Eventually Zama, deciding he has nothing to lose, throughs his lot in with a bunch of Quixotic bounty hunters who are tasked with tracking down a local bandit named Vicuna Porta, who may or may not exist. This, you won’t be surprised to learn, doesn’t end well.
Now if I was a betting man I would say that Zama is a walking metaphor for colonial guilt. He exists in a perpetual state of paralysed reverie. Someone is needed to represent the “civilising” force even as it becomes progressively less “civilised”, only able to bring “order” through terror and moving on once the economic exploitation is complete. Everyone on the ground is trapped in the hierarchical bureaucracy.
Familiar territory in some ways, novelists Achebe, Conrad, Forster, Orwell, Naipaul, Rushdie, even Kipling in his ham-fisted way, have been there, with film-makers like Coppola, Denis and Herzog following, and Fanon, Said, Rodney, and countless other academics, have examined the corrosive effects on coloniser and colonised and the profound impact on our world today. Indeed Zama itself is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, who was tortured and imprisoned by the junta in 1970s Argentina.
Argentinian director Lucrecia Martell has served up a very worthy addition to this canon. This is her first feature for 10 years which probably explains why I had not heard of her but I will hunt out her previous films. Apparently some people think she went on a trip up the Amazon, Kurtz like, during her hiatus. If so she has put it to good effect in the visual language of Zama.
If you are of a patient disposition, keen on stories that might stretch you a little further than usual in terms of space and time, and enjoy cinema for how it looks as well as where it goes, then I recommend you give this a viewing if, and when, it pops up on your chosen streaming service. I was reminded of the films of Terence Malick as I watched it, which is mostly, though not exclusively, a good thing.