Directed by: Lucrecia Martel
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín
It’s the late seventeenth century, and we’re in Asunción, Paraguay, part of the Spanish Empire. Respected officer Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is awaiting a transfer out of his humid, remote outpost. As he begins to realise that it will never come, his mind slips into chaos.
Zama is Lucrecia Martel’s first film in nearly a decade. Her return to cinema has been globally heralded; Zama has received almost universal critical acclaim and won awards and nominations all over the festival circuit.
It isn’t hard to see why. Martel’s latest is certainly an experience. Eschewing plot for atmosphere, she makes her movie a sensorial feast. We are invited to share in Don Diego de Zama’s ever-growing lunacy, entering his frazzled mind to see the world as he does. It’s disconcerting, to say the least.
Fittingly, for a film with such distinctive sound design, you hear Zama before you see it; we open with the noise of humming insects ratcheted up to a deafening pitch. Martel and sound designer Guido Berenblum continue to use audio levels to add to the general sense of unease for the duration. Zama’s hallucinations are preceded by a noise that sounds like a falling bomb, just before the explosion occurs. It’s very effective.
Visually too, Zama is striking, most of all in the final stretch, when we leave the outpost for an excursion into the wilds. The lush green of the foliage plays with the hazy blue of the sky like a dream, one we awake from in a start when an army of red-painted men emerge from the long grass. Between the cinematography and the sound design, it is certainly an impressive movie. The problem then, is the content. There isn’t enough of it. By the time the film has finished, it’s hard to shake the feeling that you’ve just spent the last two hours seeing a man go mad, and little else.
Martel does offer some commentary on the evils of colonialism. Zama and his fellow Spaniards have co-opted a group of native Paraguayans as slaves, and they are treated with a mix of neglect and disdain. At one point we see a Spaniard amusing himself by painting the body of an unmoving black man, then suggesting to Zama that he have sex with a slave woman to pass the time. It’s a potent scene.
But this scathing indictment of imperialism is very much a side-line. For the most part, we are watching Zama as he waits to get his transfer order. And when has it ever been interesting to watch people wait? His Kafkaesque journey is punctuated with the odd memorable moment like those already mentioned, but too few to keep the attention for the time Martel asks of us. Overall, it doesn’t add up to very much.
If you are going to see Zama, see it in a cinema. The big selling points here are the cinematography and the sound design, and you won’t get the best of either on a small screen. Come for an engaging story, and you’re going to leave disappointed.