Imperialism in the 1700s Is Explored with Dry Absurdism in This Oddity
Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 1hr & 55mins
***½ (out of ****)
Zama is, to say the least, an oddity. Adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s novel of the same name, the film is set in the 1700s in Argentina at a time when imperialism was at its most intense. We see the effects of this firsthand in the economic divide between two segments of people: There are the wealthy landowners and functionaries of the Crown, and there is the poor contingent. The wealthy own slaves, whom they inexorably treat as second- or third-class citizens. The poor must scrape by on their own, often without clothing or houses, bugs and insects regular visitors upon their attempted comfort.
In a way, the screenplay by director Lucrecia Martel uses this backdrop as a way of establishing the internal dynamics of its hero. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) comes from wealth, and the attendant entitlement definitely peeks through in the moments when he encounters those deemed “lower” in class than him. He has no love for “the Negroes” who, in some cases, act as literal dressage to the rooms they inhabit. In one scene, a slave who caters to Zama’s love interest, a lady of some importance, is used as the power source of a giant fan that circulates air through the room.
The irony, of course, is that Zama himself is as much of a tool of the Crown. He has requested a transfer to Buenos Aires, where such human tools are put to better use, several times, but his commanding officer (played by Daniel Veronese) puts it off for increasingly petty reasons. He has a reputation of cruelty, such as when a similarly ruthless and mysterious villain is rumored to have been killed, but he’s really just an absurd personification of the excesses of privilege: As the film opens, he stands in heroic pose before being scared off by “Indian” women coaching each other in the ways of language.
The film is astute in similar methods of knocking this character down a few pegs. He is a womanizer, but he is powerless to woo his aforementioned muse, Luciana Piñares de Luenga (a great Lola Dueñas), on account of his status. Then he discovers that he has fathered an illegitimate child with a native woman, a fact that greatly diminishes his already questionable stature among the other functionaries of the Crown. When he plots against his eventual foe, the attempt goes spectacularly awry in an action sequence that is effective as much because of what Martel does as because of what she doesn’t.
The result is always dry and absurd in a way that is never quite explicable. Indeed, Martel and cinematographer Rui Poças’ insistence upon shots of deliberate patience will put some people off. This is the kind of storytelling (and, indeed, story, which turns out to be pretty simple when distilling it to its essence) for which one will need to meet it on its wavelength. The dialogue, though not scarce, is sparse enough in the details that it isn’t just the treatment that is sometimes inexplicable. Zama has an esoteric and interpretive quality that will alienate some and excite others. For this viewer, it was an exciting challenge.
(Review by Joel Copling)
(Review by Chase Lee)