Zama (2017)

Review #1,522

Director:  Lucrecia Martel
Cast:  Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele
Plot:  Based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto written in 1956, on Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer of the seventeenth century settled in Asunción, who awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Out of competition (Venice Film Festival)
Runtime:  115 mins
Rating:  M18 for nudity
International Sales:  The Match Factory

Lucrecia Martel is back with her fourth feature after a nine-year absence, so this is arguably one of the most anticipated films of 2017, at least in the context of world cinema.  With Zama, the great Argentine filmmaker of La Cienaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008), has also made one of the most formally fascinating pictures of the year.  

Adapted from the 1956 landmark novel of the same name by Antonio Di Benedetto, which was unheard of by the international readership for nearly six decades until it was translated into English just last year, Zama centers on Don Diego de Zama (played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho with a perpetual look of stoic resignation), a lowly Spanish officer based in Asuncion in the 17th century.  Seeing no promising future (both professionally and personally), he listlessly awaits a transfer that never seems to come.  

To the uninitiated, Martel’s film will be painfully boring.  And even for the seasoned arthouse viewer, it will prove challenging.  Languidly-paced with a storytelling style that is inert if well-mannered, Zama perhaps embodies its titular character’s stagnancy, and is every bit the kind of movie to avoid making if one is producing a period costume drama, in this case, about a conquistador.  

It is, by any definition, an anti-conquistador film, lacking in any real adventure, let alone action.  One could even draw similar parallels with Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s anti-wuxia The Assassin (2015), also a film in the ‘painfully boring’ category.  But like Hou’s hypnotic film, there is something hauntingly elusive in Zama that latches onto the receptive viewer, like a kind of poetic leech that embeds and grows within.

The final third of Zama comes alive with colours and movement as Zama goes into the wilderness to try to capture an infamous bandit—whether the latter is alive, dead, imagined or mythologized is something that can’t be answered.  Indeed, Martel’s film works in an odd, mysterious way, in particular her use of sound in what is a highly-sensorial work.  Sounds of insects, water, birds, wind, and more, permeate the soundscape—sonically, the film is a marvel.  

And in the first hour or so, conspicuous if anachronistic whine-like sounds occasionally punctuate the air, not just echoing Zama’s psyche (which must be slowly and endlessly spinning—what torture!), but also situating the film outside of time—a frightening thought comes to mind: what if Zama is trapped forever, and the world has moved on?  What utter delight to dawn upon the idea that Martel might have just made her first science-fiction film. 

Verdict:  Odd, languid and inert, yet haunting, sensorial and fascinating, Martel’s fourth feature is a highly-formal period piece that grows on you.




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