The 1956 novel Zama, by the Argentinean writer Antonio Di Benedetto, begins with a dead monkey caught in turbulent water, its body tossed back and forth but never released. In Lucrecia Martel’s astonishing film adaptation, the monkey has been replaced by a long-suffering fish, which devotes its energies to staying put in the river that seeks to repel it. Exhausted, it is doomed to go nowhere. Which brings us to Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a late-18th century magistrate of the Spanish crown who awaits news of his transfer from a remote South American colony to a superior posting. He stands on the beach in tricorn, breeches and jacket, gazing out to sea while children frolic nearby. Any day now, he thinks, word will arrive from the king.
His surroundings are sun-drenched, filled with the tweeting of exotic birds. In his soul, though, all is wretched, as signalled by the most intricately unsettling soundscape this side of a David Lynch film. For special moments of thrashing turmoil, the sound designer Guido Berenblum calls on an eerie descending note – the aural equivalent of infinite despair. Zama writes to his distant spouse, whom he hasn’t seen in years, but also flirts gravely with the treasury minster’s wife (Lola Dueñas) in the hope that her favour might accelerate his departure. “You’ll be transferred any day now I hear,” she tells him, as a slave pulls the string of a sinisterly creaking fan, and the very walls – painted sky-blue and dotted with clouds – seem to mock Zama’s prospects of freedom.
There is no shortage of such taunts. In the opening scene, he is plagued by unseen female laughter. When his deputy (Juan Minujín) questions Zama’s judgement in favouring white settlers over indigenous people in a land dispute, his response is to attack him, which rather backfires: the underling is banished to Lerma, which happens, gallingly, to be exactly where Zama himself had hoped to relocate.
If he’s not mocked, he’s menaced. Around the colony there is talk of the vicious bandit Vicuña Porto, whom Zama insists has been executed. But has he? Distinctions between life and death become moot in a film littered with questions (“Who died?”, “What letter?” and so on) and Zama’s distress when a slave refuses to announce him to her mistress hints at a kind of existential dread.
Any viewer who tries to keep up with what’s happening is likely to emerge as confused as Zama himself. No one does disorientation quite like Martel, as proved by her previous film, The Headless Woman, a chilling allegory about Argentina’s “disappeared” in which a woman drifts into madness after possibly driving over a child. Her new film has its political dimension, too: with its atmosphere of low-level panic and paranoia, and a camera attentive to the presence of slaves whose suffering far outstrips Zama’s travails, it was never likely to be an endorsement of the colonialist project.
But Martel is more interested in common psychological delusion – the idea, not restricted to Zama, that some nebulous and richly deserved paradise awaits us. The film engineers obfuscation on every level. Interior shots are kept tight and claustrophobic, the camera mostly static; mysterious sounds are heard off-screen. In the most effective example of Martel’s use of framing to create bizarre effects, a fraught meeting is interrupted by a snooty llama that wanders around in the background before poking its head rudely into shot in a delightful instance of 18th-century photo-bombing.
As Zama descends deeper into the labyrinth of bureaucracy, new and increasingly perverse obstacles are placed in his way. At one point, for reasons too complicated to explain, he has to read an entire novel and deliver a critical report on it before his latest application will be considered. The movie, offset by a dreamy score redolent of a tourist travelogue, is dryly Beckettian, with Cacho its suitably po-faced representative. As composed in his suffering as the most put-upon screwball straight-man ever was, he exudes a strange nobility even at his most ridiculous. He has fallen into a trance of torment, and the film puts us in a trance, too: one of bewildered, bottomless wonder.
dir: Lucrecia Martel
This article appears in the 23 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Age of the strongman