Saturday 18 August 2018


By Dimitri Keramitas
Don Diego de Zama, a magistrate and officer of the Spanish Crown posted in a remote region of South America, often looks with tortured longing at the ocean. The water represents both the distance from his superiors and the separation from his wife and family, as he waits for a letter permitting him a transfer out of what he considers a stagnant posting. His regard will translate into his subjugation of a conquered people, but always with alienated detachment. 
This is the drama created by Argentine director Lucrecia Martel in her acclaimed film Zama, based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto. It is a different version of those stories of lost male souls in the New World, a story that has been told by Werner Herzog in Aguirre: Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo,  and by Terence Malick in The New World. In those movies, directed by men, we see things from the subjective view of the (male) protagonist and share the objectivizing gaze upon tropical nature and indigenous peoples. Ms. Martel turns the imperialist tables, and the result is an unsettling but refreshing and visionary film. 
For one thing, the women here are not the usual “compliant native concubines”. When Zama happens upon a group of nude women applying mud packs on the beach, they call him a voyeur, and one of them chases after him until he strikes her down. His indigenous mistress has a child with him, but they live apart from him and cultivate an indifferent attitude. A married colonial woman (played by a sensual Lola Dueñas) lives as she pleases, strings Zama along but refuses his advances. Even the women employed at a brothel seem more work(wo)manlike than seductive. The implicit logic is clear: women who survived the voyage across the Atlantic, or went from traditional ways of living to a Europeanized world, wouldn’t have been fragile flowers but hardy roses with thorns.
In contrast, indigenous men and their African peers are portrayed as sullenly docile workhorses. Is it because they were subject to more brutal punishment than noncompliant females? Or is Ms. Martel’s approach less a matter of rigorous logic and more an insistence on gender? This isn’t clear, as these characters remain little more than walk-on extras. 
Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho plays Zama as both repugnant and poignant. He has the scrutinizing eyes, thin lips, and blade-like aquiline nose of the judge his character incarnates. As Zama goes about his duties in a cold but diligent manner, we feel that he’d be at home officiating in the Inquisition or even at a latter-day concentration camp.
Cacho is remarkable at showing Zama’s utter banality, whether at work or in his personal life. Never smiling or raising his voice, he seems to go through the motions not just of a dreary job but life itself. This is no conquistadore from the 16th century in a pie-wedge helmet, physically bloodthirsty and spiritually transcendent, but an 18th-century civil servant in a tricorn hat.
Though Ms. Martel is described as a visionary, that doesn’t mean gauzy, dreamy subjectivity. For the most part her filming is implacably clean, a baleful feminine eye on the brutality and squalor of colonialism. Likewise, the film’s editing omits felicitous transitions, abruptly cutting to essential sequences, like an enraged housekeeper surveying a filthy environment and saying “Look here! And here! And, ugh, here!”
Daniel Giménez Cacho as Zama.
At the same time there are surreal touches - a moving box, the shovelling of a rain of dirt on a coffin - explained realistically, but whose reality is left in doubt (though not their metaphorical resonance). There are also beautiful shots of tropical nature, images that contrast starkly but oneirically with the bug-like antics of the people.
Zama finds himself in a No Exit situation. He tries to get transferred out of the backwater where he’s trapped, but to no avail. He pleads with the governor (played by Gustavo Boëm with oily authority) and petitions the king. We can assume that the authorities simply lack replacements for his post, but whatever the cause, Zama is in a Kafkaesque predicament, and a very ironic one: a patriarchal figure stymied by the patriarchy (which fits glove-like into hierarchy).
Aside from Sartre and Kafka, one gets the impression that the director wanted her film to be like those Conradian stories of men stranded in the cosmos they’ve created for themselves as much as in the engulfing tropics, stories like Heart of Darkness, Outcast of the Islands, Almayer’s Folly.
The problem in Zama is that on one hand, the director doesn’t have the sympathy for her protagonist that Conrad had for his. We’re not speaking of the mindless, over-the-top identification of romantic filmmakers, but the sympathy which leads to understanding as well as compassion. Ms. Martel tells us of Zama’s family, but we get no flashbacks or even spoken references in dialogue to his old life. Without this sense of his human side he remains a blank.
On the other hand, while Ms. Martel’s antipathy makes the character opaque, she gives an impression of knowing all too well the nature of external forces on the maintaining of the status quo. There’s no real sense of mystery. Instead viewers get a motif about a renegade on the loose, pillaging and raping, who must be hunted down. The mysterious villain remains lurking about for years, but in the end he’s just a name, as the renegade himself says at one point.
Viewers are meant to get the idea that it is this “villain” (communism, criminality, rebellion, liberalism, dissidence) that helps keep the patriarchy in place. Ms. Martel is a wonderful director, but her narrowness leads her brilliant film to a dead end. The paradox of art is that with no real mystery, there’s no real revelation. Yes, the director’s scathing gaze strips the clothes off her target, but the universe she’s created is already a nudist colony.
Production: Bananeira Filmes / Rei Cine. Distribution: Walt Disney Studios (Argentina) / Strand Releasing (US) / The Match Factory (worldwide).
Dimitri Keramitas is a writer and legal expert based in Paris.
Aug. 18, 2018, marks 500 years since the King of Spain, Charles I, issued a charter authorising the transportation of slaves direct from Africa to the Americas.