Lucrecia Martel’s first film in nine years is an adaptation of the 1956 novel Zama by Antonio di Benedetto, which has recently made its way into an English translation, but has been considered a critical part of the Argentine literary canon for some time. It revolves around Don Diego de Zama, a corregidor of the Spanish crown awaiting permission to return home, or at least for a transfer from his colonial posting, and, along with El Silenciero and Los Suicidas forms part of Benedetto’s “Trilogy of Expectation.” Expectation, or thwarted expectation, is very much the register of Martel’s adaptation as well, which relocates the action from Paraguay to Argentina, but retains the sense of existential ennui that makes Benedetto’s prose style so unusual and distinctive. Most of the film follows Zama, played by Daniel Giminez Cacho, as he waits for the letter to arrive from the King, during which time he sees successive Governors come and go, and is forced to suffer one indignity after another as he waits for his return. Sometimes those indignities are directly related to the will of the Crown and its representatives, and are exacted as preemptive payment for the favour of a transfer, while sometimes they form part of an arbitrary and picaresque world that seems designed to thwart and mock Zama at every step, whether it’s through his failed sexual advances towards Luciana Pinares de Luenha, played by Lola Duenas, his discovery that he has an illegitimate daughter, or his impotent attempts to arrogate colonial authority.
Throughout this entire process, Zama gradually finds himself turning into a colonial subject, or at least occupying a strange space between the colonizer and the colonized – a process that he tries to forestall with the mission that gives the second half of the film and story its shape, in which he gathers together a band of soldiers to try and hunt down an outlaw who is supposedly responsible for all the evils besetting the colony. The more he uses this mission to try and differentiate himself from the landscape and peoples around him, however, the more picaresquely he’s imbricated within them, with the result that the teleology and trajectory of this desperate bid at narrative momentum disperses as it proceeds. If Zama tries to shape his destiny, then, he ultimately fails, as is made gruesomely clear in the amputation of his hands that occurs in the final scenes, and yet even this is dealt with in a semi-comic manner, and with a bathetic matter-of-factness, by the mise-en-scene and soundscape that couches him. In part that’s because his efforts to achieve a stately colonial distance are undercut from the very opening shot, which depicts him staring nobly at the sea, only for the gradual incursion of other noises and sounds, and the camera’s digital attunement to all the visual and sonic glitches occurring in his periphery, to undercut this heroic stance the moment he tries to inhabit it, or claim its serene sightlines as his own.
What ensues is as much an ethnographic study of films about colonialism as an adaptation of Benedetto’s novel, as Martel sets out to deconstruct and dismantle the spatial syntax of colonialism, as well as the ways in which it might persist even or especially in films that are not overtly about the colonial process. At the heart of that syntax is the omniscient surveillant gaze of the colonist, so it’s appropriate that the very next scene in the film sees Zama retreat from the coast only to double back when he sees a group of indigenous woman washing themselves, lying down covertly on the bluff just above them as they go about their daily business. Zama’s body language here is every bit as bathetic and unusual as in the opening shot, since while he’s clearly invested in spying on the woman, he’s lying above them more than looking down on them, not quite comfortable with inhabiting a panoramic gaze even from this position of physical superiority. That doesn’t prevent the women looking and laughing at him, however, nor from calling him a voyeur, and then finally chasing him, only for Zama to knock one of them to ground with an abrupt violence that brings the scene to an equally sudden close, and takes us into the main part of the film.
Nevertheless, the import of this transition isn’t to blithely insist on the violence of colonialism, or the hypocrisy of Zama’s paternalistic ambitions, since Martel seems to suggest that any consistent tonal or moral approach to her subject matter is tantamount to the lofty and assured colonial optic that she’s seeking to deconstruct and query in the first place. Instead, we’re presented with a strange, picaresque and even ahistorical tone, as Martel paints colonial Spain as a digital environment ahead of its time, full of odd quirks, glitches and promiscuous bursts of information that even Zama’s most painterly and studied poses can’t fully contain. During the opening credits, we hear a story about how catfish remain close to the banks of rivers since they’re attracted to air, the very element that also destroys them if exposed to it for too long. In many ways, Zama’s own position at the edge of the river where the film opens speaks to the same contradictory rhythms, as he continually finds himself drawn towards a colonial optic that is destined to repel and destroy him. Indeed, so thoroughly does it dissociate him from his preferred historical identity that he often doesn’t even feel like a historical figure at all, but rather a contemporary Spaniard, or person of Spanish descent, trying to come to terms with an orientation towards history that he can barely articulate in conscious or direct language, even or especially when it threatens to query and thwart his intuitive gravitation towards it.
That’s not to say, of course, that there are no historical details in Zama, but that the film is never quite situated in history, adopting an awry approach to both the specific historical era and the general sense of historicity typical of historical dramas of this kind. For the first hour, we barely see the landscape or anything much outside the Spanish settlement, which is more or less condensed to Zama’s preposterous and fantastic stance in the opening scene. With no stable frontier spatiality in place, however, the interior sequence are also bereft of any clear anchor or focus, as we drift from scene to scene much as Zama ducks, ungainly, from one low doorway to the next, through a series of rooms and antechambers that grow more labyrinthine as the film proceeds. Most of these are barely but brightly furnished, exuding a sense of presence but little in the way of a discernible tone, especially since Zama is almost, but never quite, the focus of the compositions that unfold there. Too much the object of scrutiny to be traditionally decentred, but not quite coincident with the scrutiny that is directed at him either, he finds himself perpetually displaced by the animals, women, indigenous subjects and other disavowed and collateral damage of the colonial project that suffuse Zama’s mise-en-abymes and the outpost’s administrative architecture.
For the most part, Martel refuses to construe these “other” figures as background, either allowing them to wander in and out of her mise-en-scenes with an unruly irreverence for the ostensible focus, or else turning their forced stasis into a real and embodied foundation for the action occurring in the putative foreground, which loses some of its centrality in the process. Not all its centrality, admittedly, since that would simply be to reverse and replicate its colonial logic, but the very fantasy of unencumbered centrality in the first place, since these animals, women and indigenous subjects don’t merely intrude, but actively prop up, the tableaux within which they are ostensibly mere ornament. In one particularly unsettling sequence, Zama and his confreres relax against what appears to be a windy sky, only for a fresh camera angle to make it clear that it is merely a painting of clouds adorning an internal wall, and that the wind across their faces is actually formed by indigenous servants fanning them with interminable and unbearable patience. Moments like these suggest that even a “naturalistic” depiction of nature itself is implicitly founded on the labour of people typically ignored by the colonialist project, perhaps explaining why Martel’s visions of the outside world, in the second half, tend to be either underwhelmingly drab or cloaked in a Technolored, dayglow-tinted, luridly hyperbolic atmosphere of fantasy.
It’s not just the visual field, either, but the soundscape of the film that undercuts even the most residual notion of colonial omniscience – or, rather, the seamless and naturalistic fusion of sound and image that Martel presents as the analog camera’s central complicity with the colonial gaze. Accordingly, she cuts between Brazilian surf music and looming synthesized tones, neither of which sound incongruous per se, since they always suit the mood and ambience of the scene, but neither of which ever feel situated either. Similarly, the script moves between dialogue and internal monologue quite incidentally and fluidly, as we’re treated to one cryptic sonic tableau after another in which the ceremonial and ritual memory of Europe is presented as the heart of the colonial project, and Europe itself is reduced to a fantasy of audiovisual continuity that needs to be perpetually impressed upon the unruly sonic and visual dissonances of the colonial landscape. No surprise, then, that Zama observes that “Europe is best remembered by those who were never there,” since the ultimate goal of his mission is to ensure this very analog coordination of sound and image to such an extent that the local indigenous peoples are capable of believing in it with even more faith than the displaced Europeans, for whom it remains a theory, a fantasy, a dream.
What little narrative the film possesses revolves around what’s at stake for Zama at being placed at the centre, or the off-centre, of this dissonant colonial matrix, which Martel presents as being already, inherently, post-colonial, just as the ultimate project of colonialism is here presented as the effort to stave off a post-colonial dissonance that was intrinsic to colonialism from the very moment that settlers placed foot on indigenous soil. Call it literal post-colonialism, requiring a literal mode of post-cinema in which all the discrepancies of the digital are implicit in the very fact of the analog address – a situation that places Zama at the centre of a force field he can’t possibly perceive or understand. Rumours abound, prophecies are made, people project things onto him, or demand things of him, but Zama is never quite able to get a hold of these disparate imperatives, which are as urgent as they are fleeting, demanding him to present himself even as he can never quite collect his thoughts or get a sense of the present moment. Overdetermined and displaced in the same moment, regular pathos is precisely what’s denied to him, producing a picaresque and perpetual sense of being cuckolded that frequently brings the tone and ambit of the film very close to that of an eighteenth-century novel, while also revealing just how muchthe magic realism that Martel draws upon reflects that picaresque sensibility in turn, as well as its deep interest in men mocked by the tide of history, generals in their labyrinths.
The result is a fever dream that intensifies with every effort that Zama makes to contain it, resulting in a kind of comic apocalyptic atmosphere, a sense that we’re witnessing the dissolution of time that supposedly precedes the end times, only for the very rhetoric of apocalyptic devolution to be punctured by the film’s refusal of colonial perceptuality as well. Call it Martel’s version of history, in which the object of study is the stable vantage point itself, along with its complicity in film history, and in which the very act of history is reframed as an ethical unseeing, a redemptive unwillingness to be able to see, and process what the camera represents to us: “I give you what nobody gave me – I give you no hope.”