Review: Zama (2017)

Argentina’s best movie this year is kind of a drag.

by Benjamín Harguindey

Review of Zama, directed by Lucrecia Martel. Argentina.

Every year there’s one film in Argentina that cleans up the local sweepstakes with a vengeance. It’s usually big budget, politically inclined and is either directed by an A-lister or stars at least one. Any other year this would’ve been The Summit, Santiago Mitre‘s silly, mildly polemic political thriller starring A-lister Ricardo Darín. But all bets were suddenly off with the belated release of Zama.

Zama is of course the latest movie by Lucrecia Martel, one of Argentina’s most celebrated directors, and it has spent almost a decade in the making. Martel earned critical acclaim with film debut La Ciénaga (2001), winning several awards at Berlin, Havana and Sundance and drawing in filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar, who has produced her movies ever since. Martel has remained a mainstay of many an international film festival, and perhaps due to her scant output she’s been the focus of much buzzing about her next project. For a while this was an adaptation of the legendary graphic novel El Eternauta, an apocalyptic sci-fi epic, but for whatever reason (rumors go from budgetary constraints to creative disputes) this never came to fruition.

And so her next dream project became Zama, an adaptation of the Antonio di Benedetto novel of the same name. Flash forward almost a decade since Martel’s last movie – The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza, 2008) – and the press is foaming at the mouth. It’s gotten rave reviews and has been selected as the country’s official submission to the Foreign Language Film Award of the 90th Annual Academy Awards. Whatever she puts out has got to be worth the wait, right? This is her magnum opus, right?

Set in the Argentinian northlands at some point during the XVIIth century, the movie centers around Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), an officer of the Spanish crown patiently awaiting to be reinstated to a more promising position. He whiles the days staring into the landscape, sorting out petty bureaucracy and generally leading a life of quiet despair, bossing around his one underling and courting an impossible tease.

The closest thing to a narrative in the movie lies in the extremely passive humiliation of Zama, who wants nothing but to leave the wretched land and is routinely foiled by reasons of increasing absurdity (think Kafka’s “The Castle”). An early irony is that, while he begs constantly to be rewarded with a reinstatement, his underling receives one as punishment. Adding insult to injury, he’s been having an affair with Zama’s teasing dame. So on and so forth, Zama is shot down and disregarded by unresponsive bureaucrats who barely register Don Diego’s despair, who’s too polite and restrained to blow up for his own good.

At its best, the movie resembles something from early Werner Herzog, who excelled in juxtaposing man’s pathetic delusions of grandeur with the beautiful, immense and uncaring majesty of nature. Zama is indeed engulfed by nature, dwarfened by it; but unlike Aguirre or Fitzcarraldo, who dreamt of siring kingdoms new, his ambition is to serve old ones and in turn be granted a small, politically correct respite.

The problem with Zama however is that it falls in line with the lazier tenets of Argentine filmmaking, which at its worst adopts a, shall we say, “aesthetic of boredom”. The camera barely moves, shots linger a little too long, scenes draw out, key events frequently take place off screen, actors hesitate from line to line, dialogue is either mundane or purely instructive, the conclusion is pretty much foregone and the message always involves something to do with the impossibility of transformative action or true knowledge. Arguably this befits a movie about boredom and frustration, but in turn begs the question: should a movie about boredom be boring?

Maybe the problem is Zama himself. If a story should be guided by the actions of its protagonist, then Zama is plotless, for Don Diego is an entirely reactionary character. Or maybe the problem is that the movie doesn’t push the absurdist angle enough: Zama’s plight doesn’t become incrementally ridiculous or substantially worse; rather the queue to the object of his desire becomes longer with tedious, petty obstacles. So there’s no sense of mounting stakes or narrative progression, only stagnation.

The third act does shake up things a little by throwing a mission in Zama’s way: capturing the legendary bandit Vicuña Porto. Not that this requires the character to do anything else but continue to obediently fall in line, but at least it gives the audience a concise goal and something to cling to. But even this feels like it’s too little, too late. The expedition also gives way to one of the weirdest sequences in the movie, in which Zama and company are ambushed by Indians, captured, anointed in some sort of rite and then set loose for no reason and without having complicated things any further.

Martel gets the atmosphere right: lethargic, monotonous, deeply suggestive of passive hostility. Whatever point she wants to make about the futility of man’s capricious impositions over nature – over his own fate – she makes it several times too many. Once you’re over the exotic setting and recognize the mandatory “shoot everything like a painting” period photography, which requires that everyone group up close and stand real still, there’s nothing much left to the movie other than reiterating what a drag is Zama’s life, and what a drag is the movie that emblazons it.

BenjaBenjamín Harguindey / Managing Editor, Writer (Mar del Plata, Argentina – 1989) Screenwriter graduated from Universidad del Cine, Buenos Aires. Benja’s worked for EscribiendoCine as a film critic since 2010, covering the Biarritz, San Sebastián and Venice festivals. He judged the CILECT Prize and won several writing & criticism contests. He’s published one novel, Noches de Tartaria (2006).

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