The mischievous thrill at the burrowed, uncanny center of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama is a llama. In a pivotal scene, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) - our asshole buffoon protagonist – sits and, in one scene of many, accepts his position within the Spanish Empire. He’s a lonely Corregidor defined by his aimlessness; angry at the reality of his prospects. For a majority of the film, he is entirely subject to the power of others as his own is fruitlessly overtaken and spent needlessly. And in this moment, as he is, yet again, forced to come to terms with his place in the grand realities of the colonist mythos, a llama walks towards the camera and plants itself next to Zama in an unconscious own. Animals have greater urgency than this guy, and it is a defining element of Martel’s comedy, which remains opaque and unsettling even as it tips its hat towards the farcical. Zama, as a work of historical fiction, frequently highlights the absurdity of masculinity, and the damage of men not knowing what they’re up against. Its portrayal of colonialism, with the bad white-wigs and the crumbling villages beaten by drink and piss, is as hysterical as it is deeply troubling, confronting the notion of terrible, ridiculous people being successful at stripping culture away for monetary and societal control.
Its formal control, regarding sound and image, conveys the heavy-lifting – vast obstructions, tightly cramped spaces, and unknowable chaos only heightening the obliviousness of conquerors. Men are constantly made out to be small: standing at the edge of a little cliff in some desperate attempt to explore further, even though they’ve done nothing but harm, or surrounded by giant window borders and vast jungle landscapes. The sweat and humidity isn’t necessarily a matter of the climate conditions, but of stuffy officers forced under a heat-lamp to stay put, unable to satisfy their impossible delusions of grandeur. There’s a real threat of these bodies imploding because nothing is meaningful to them, particularly with Zama and his reality constantly swerving back to strike him in the nose.
This enclosed, bewildering comedy collapses into an extended period of fantasy, surrealism, and unreal sights from the second-half onward. If you’re lost in the film, you will notice no shift, eerily reminiscent of the moment where you drift off to sleep. While viewing Zama, a particularly distressing action awakened me from my trance before letting me down gently back into the stream. Even in comparison to the first half, it is challenging, complicating Zama’s vivid castration and plunging any measure of connection to setting into the mystery. Soon, you’ll see no end, and you won’t realize where you started. Zama soon becomes an infinity-zone of disruptions and encounters, akin to Aguirre: The Wrath of God or Apocalypse Now without a beginning point, with Martel’s luscious, swift sound-design in full flourish and imagery cascading into one another, free from the limits of structure.
It seems to me that Zama could only transform this way, because the history is so haunted. For a film denying any mythos of colonialism, which is the opposite of James Gray’s astonishing The Lost City of Z, the only progression is inward, until all direction and interest has been lost, and survival is built upon the willingness to accept death as your one and only master. There is no ‘second act’ in Martel’s Zama, for life has no in-between state within the explored and untamed. What we know is all we have, and to assume otherwise is a fool’s errand. Luckily for us (and sadly for them), Zama’s world is an idiot’s planet, and they dive headfirst into its enigmas and obscurities. By the final frames, you’ll be questioning everything, and whether it means anything at all. It certainly doesn’t to them.