Lucrecia Martel’s last film The Headless Woman was a haunting puzzle-piece drama that left an impression of lingering unease – and confirmed the Argentine writer-director as one of our leading filmmakers. That film was released 10 years ago, and after much delay she has a new movie out, Zama, a period drama set in a Spanish colony in 18th-century South America.
The long wait seems oddly appropriate. For one, Martel’s style of filmmaking is slow-cooked, compacted, dense, and deliberate – Zama isn’t a film made with any sense of haste, and its impact stays with you and builds long after first viewing.
But also Zama is itself a film about waiting, about the anguish of anticipation. A middle-ranking functionary in a colonial backwater, Don Diego de Zama longs to sail to Spain where his wife and son live. But for this he needs a letter requesting a transfer from the local governor, and this letter remains unwritten. Without the letter, Zama (a performance of careworn charisma from Daniel Giménez Cacho) remains in his post – unhappy, bored, desperate.
Zama’s agonised, constantly frustrated attempts to leave form the thread that holds together Martel’s seemingly disparate collection of scenes from this remote coastal location. The years seem to pass – Martel doesn’t give an exact tally, but colleagues come and go; and Zama himself grows increasingly haggard – and yet still no letter.
Through a fastidious attention to the workings of the Spanish crown, what emerges is a droll, acerbic portrait of a vast unwieldy state bureaucracy, of which Zama is both a functionary and victim.
The absurdity of colonial life is seen as a grim Kafkaesque comedy
The overseas setting gives the satire a sharper edge: this is the absurdity of colonial life, seen as a grim Kafkaesque comedy. (And the film is funny: at onepoint Zama is attending a solemn meeting with his governor and into the office walks a llama. The interruption goes unremarked on by the two men, but it earned a laugh from the audience I was with – I’m not sure why the scene prompted that reaction other than it’s further evidence of Martel’s peculiar genius).
But while Zama is about one man trapped in a single place, the tone of the film is restless and sprawling. Martel’s approach to storytelling is boldly askew; the structure is exhilaratingly elliptic. Zama’s attempt to woo a capricious noblewoman is a major part of the first section, only for Martel to abruptly cut this storyline, never to return to it. In a throwaway line we learn that Zama has fathered a child with an indigenous woman – but little more is said. Later on he moves from his official residence to a grotty guesthouse – and stays there for reasons that remain cloudy.
Martel withholds much more than she reveals, and her movie stirs in us a sense of jumpy anxiety that is an echo of Zama’s own predicament. By the end Zama’s physical and psychological state of atrophy worsens – he develops a fever that seems to infect the logic of the movie.
In scenes of mounting hallucinatory intensity Zama joins a group of Spanish soldiers on a mission to the swampy interior to arrest a notorious bandit (despite long-held claims that he has been executed by the state). And here Zama and his comrades have a violent encounter with indigenous tribes-people. In scenes of vibrant, almost dreamlike beauty the ugly logic of colonialism plays out.
Zama confounds easy interpretation and on my second viewing I feel there’s still much to discover about this sumptuous, emotionally reverberant drama. It’s a thrillingly layered film, and is perhaps best experienced by surrendering to its intoxicating strangeness. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait too long until Martel’s next film.
Zama is in cinemas from May 25