Horror and despair hover just out of the frame, or below the surface, or behind the curtain, of Lucrecia Martel’s mysterious and dreamlike movie Zama. It’s a film that returns Martel to her themes of guilt, sex and shame – her first picture, in fact, since the enigmatic The Headless Woman 10 years ago. But Zama, with its eerie andante tempo and period setting, gives her ideas a new exalted platform, a new theatrical and formal grandeur.
It’s the story of Diego De Zama, a 16th-century administrator in the service of imperial Spain, whose courageous exploits in battle long ago won him a sinecure as a magistrate in the brutally remote outpost of what is now Asunción, on the Paraguay River. But now he waits endlessly, frantically, desperately for news of the more glamorous and prestigious posting he once assumed would quickly follow and that would reunite him with his wife and children, left behind years before in Buenos Aires.
Zama is played by Daniel Giménez Cacho with a perplexed hauteur, like a caged eagle. He is utterly alone, with a mediocre stipend, and nothing to do but cultivate a gloomy sexual fascination with the local women and capricious white aristocratic ladies of his own circle; his sexual brooding is a kind of anaesthetic for the panic that would otherwise overwhelm him. Zama must also participate – jadedly, diffidently – in the official duties of state violence and racism: enforcing the enslavement of the indigenous peoples. As an americano, that is someone born in the Americas and not Spain, Zama suspects that he himself is regarded as a second-rater in the colonial service. Is this why he has been forgotten, left behind in this burning swamp? He doesn’t know, and has no way of finding out.
It’s a waking nightmare that is part existential paralysis, part erotic reverie. Martel has adapted the 1956 novel by the Argentinian author Antonio di Benedetto, who has been rediscovered in the English-speaking world since Esther Allen published her translation for the NYRB Classics edition in 2000, with a fascinating introduction wondering whether the book’s languorous evocation of official cruelty foreshadowed Di Benedetto’s own imprisonment and torture at the hands of the Argentinian junta 20 years later, in the 70s.
Zama is a story that obviously has something of Beckett and Kafka, but creates worryingly plausible real-world evocations of their cosmic loneliness and bureaucratic imprisonment. And its increasingly important and toxic plot development is Borgesian. The colonial officers, worried about their patent inability to keep the peace, are terrified by rumours of a certain all-powerful and legendary bandit Vicuña Porto. Eventually, out of pure frustrated rage, Zama will join an ad hoc military expedition pledged to capture and kill this spectral figure – only to suspect that he is closer to hand than anyone had imagined. Is Vicuña simply the ghost of their own colonial exhaustion and disgust?
Martel creates deeply strange tableaux of longing and alienation. Zama furtively lurks behind a rock, peeping at naked village women taking a mud bath. When one cries “Voyeur!” and chases him, he slaps her – a gesture of arrogance and spite made more pathetic by the unavailability of that married patrician beauty he is hopelessly courting: Luciana Piñares De Luenga, terrifically played by Almodóvar regular Lola Dueñas. The difference between their dreary parochial setting and the fanatically imagined refinement of Spain is ever-present. In one of these spartan salons, Luciana murmurs: “Europe is best remembered by those who were never there.”
The movie forcefully creates the colonial administrator’s stunned disgust and suppressed dismay: Martel’s Zama is not so far from Herzog’s Don Lupe De Aguirre – or closer maybe to Coppola’s Capt Willard, journeying deep into the jungle on the orders of an imperial power. But Martel’s movie finds a emphasis different from Di Benedetto’s book. Her focus is not just on Zama’s gradual and pitiable breakdown, but on the violence that is crushing everyone. There is a different kind of orientalism at work here – an occidentalism, perhaps, an imperialism that has exoticised the peoples of the Americas to the west. Their bodies are fetishised: either bound up and chained, prior to beating and torture, or naked and exposed, in a way that discloses Zama’s horror of transgression, of giving way to his desires that may bind him here for ever. Zama is left with his tragicomic white man’s burden. A heatstruck world of desire and defeat.