Antonio di Benedetto’s novel, Zama, is renowned for its simplicity, with most paragraphs a mere sentence in length; Lucrecia Martel’s film adaptation is full of detail. Where di Benedetto cuts descriptions short (even principal characters are dubbed “mulatto”), Martel fills every extended shot with sumptuous color and soundscapes. And where, at every point, di Benedetto skirts realism with blunt mystical phenomena, Martel builds surreality out of unexplained shifts in tone and volatile pacing. Martel’s Zama isn’t a complete departure from its source material: its episodic narrative grasps di Benedetto’s Paraguay/Chile, but just transforms it into a more sedate kind of dreamscape. The dream is often punctured by history, as colonialism and its effects are always present, stoking anxiety.
Zama represents Martel’s adieu to the era of violence that built the Chile-Paraguay border, but at the same time grapples with the lingering ghosts of colonialism.
The colonialist Don Diego de Zama (based on a real person, but not on that person’s real story) is possessed by the need to move — both up in the ranks of his governmental post and away from his post at Concepción. Daniel Giménez Cacho plays him with a certain swagger befitting the character; Zama is deeply uncomfortable among the aristocratic Spanish, but also around poor natives. Often acting out against any perceived threat of his position with a quick glance, folded arms, or a curled lip, Zama is bitter and alone — in-between two worlds. But when the character’s station goes from one of moderate power to that of a grunt, forced to hunt down the infamous but illusive villain Vicuña Porto, Cacho’s body language changes, reflecting Zama’s entirely different persona, one that’s defeated, but not humbled. In these later scenes, Martel brings a personal touch to the material, shooting with a detached irony, focusing on landscape just as much as portraiture. The palette shifts to a dark green, as Zama is finally swept away from his colonialist life and into the swampland, perhaps to live, perhaps to die. The colonized finally fight back as the imperialists stretch too far into their territory, as if Frantz Fanon was leading them in Algeria, and the bureaucratic state, so fraught with petty power struggles, goes to war with itself. Zama represents Martel’s adieu to this era of violence, which built the Chile-Paraguay border, but at the same time grapples with the lingering ghosts of colonialism.
You can currently stream Lucrecia Martel’s Zama on Amazon Prime.