Maybe it’s the driven mad ending to Apocalypse Now (and to director Francis Ford Coppola), but there’s something fitting about an acclaimed director emerging from a long absence to make a film that features the backdrop of a colonial jungle. The irony of these films is that the elements are unforgiving to those attempting to conquer—unable to live as they desire—yet they refuse to allow the conquered to live without them. Terence Malick did just that in the Solomon Islands with The Thin Red Line after a 20-year absence and now Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel—a film festival darling, director of La Cienaga—has returned nine years after The Headless Woman.
With Malick there were whispered rumors that his absence included stints as a taxi driver in Paris and then tracked migrant birds in Oklahoma. For Martel, the whispers included a sickness or a long trip down the Amazon River. Like Malick, Martel has returned to cinema with a poetic, wholly unique, and audience-divisive take on a standard genre. Malick’s was a war film that paused to compare man’s carnage with the natural order of the wilderness. With Zama, Martel has made the most adventurous conquistador film by showing a near lack of adventure. Zama concerns the madness of colonial paperwork, the feverish repetition of attempting to instill order from a kingdom thousands of miles away. Like her titular anti-hero of Zama, I was lulled into a gentle acceptance of purgatory before a sudden attack in the jungle dropped me into hell.
We are introduced to Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) as he perches himself above the native nude bathing women. Wearing his official Spanish government attire of a wig, a velvet hat, an overstuffed coat and buckled pants, the clothing of his rank causes immense discomfort. When a woman chases him down shouting “voyeur” he slaps her down.
Martel doesn’t give us any time stamps, but we aware of de Zama’s fatigue and displeasure of his post in Paraguay, immediately. A local boy looks at him in disdain and narrates, dreamlike, that there is a group of fish that live close to the shore, who swim back and forth in a constant motion, using all their energy in an attempt to stay in the same place. Zama is waiting to move back to Lerma, Spain, but colonial forces keep him in one place, despite all his energy being spent attempting to convince his superiors to send a letter to the King asking for his new post. He’s frequently thwarted by frivolous tasks. And even as he moves his belongings out to a new area, he is called back in a delicate comedy of bureaucracy.
The male gaze is immense in Zama. It’s how we’re introduced to Zama and it’s something that Martel returns to frequently. She uses it to show that while Zama is dissatisfied he uses his post as a selfish attempt to aid the beautiful women around him. When a family comes to the Crown’s council hoping to receive forty native slaves because their farm is faltering, they only have a name with ties to Spanish royalty, no proof of legitimacy via paperwork. But Zama is transfixed by their mixed race daughter and he stares at her throughout their presentation of the case, then grants them their wish, despite the dissatisfaction of his junior (Juan Minujin). Zama kisses the cheek of the mother and father, but the daughter walks right past him. When Zama stares, Martel uses a droning sound that signifies focus but it fades further down a funnel, just like Zama’s grip on situation.
Zama also plants himself in the home with four young women inside, offering protection from a gang of thieves he believes to be dead. When one of the women he’s bedded asks him to fight a duel for her against a man who has bitten her body, he cowardly refuses due to his rank. Yet, when a native man comments on the beauty of the Spanish Countess (Lola Duenas) he comes to immediate defense. Thus, Martel shows his warped gaze aligning with rank. He does not look upon the Countess with lust for he is forbidden, but his days amongst the local women are treated as transactional favors, and that leads his governing sense of justice.
Martel revisits the droning funnel score on several occasions when Zama’s attempts to leave Asuncion are thwarted. She’s presented Zama as a man who deserves very little pity yet his constant denial still is marked with slightly comedic cruelty. The combination of the sounds and succession of scenes weaves a strange narrative that takes a little bit of getting used to. But eventually it washed over me and stuck in my brain for a few days.
Zama is decidedly anti-adventure and in a way, it’s almost a feverish Conquistador adaptation of Herman Melville‘s Bartleby, the Scrivener (the Wall Street clerk who eventually only writes “I would prefer not to” on the work he’s supposed to do). But when Zama, frail from the passage of time, gets dropped into a marshy expedition to search for a group of murderous bandits who have terrorized the colony, it’s in this green backdrop that Martel stages one of the most savagely beautiful attacks I’ve ever seen. It’s a frenzied flash of green reeds, blood-red bodies and thumping hatchets. It’s followed by a ritual that we never understand yet looks like a doorway into hell. And Zama, who’s far too old for this shit, just wants to go home.
Though Martel wraps up Zama with a feverish adventure set piece, Zama delivers it almost as a punishment. After you funnel through the whirring narrative, you’re spit out into a nightmare. Zama isn’t a young buck looking for adventure and then got it. He’s just a man who wants to get home and the comedy of errors—and his own hubris and lust—keeps him there and ultimately takes him to “the horror, the horror.”
I highly recommend Zama for the cinematically adventurous. There are so many quietly devastating moments in which men who crave adventure constantly thwart the simple requests of a man who wants his disappointing adventure to end.