Reviewed by: Andrew Robertson

"This is a very particular film - one where particles of detail crystallise into observation, meaning and import accreting like nacre around grit, producing a pearl, a natural jewel."

"We must be patient", Don Diego de Zama is advised, a piece of guidance as well directed to the audience as to our protagonist. Liminalities abound, but between horizon and shore, imperial ambition and the land it seeks to control, between self and face and station and class there is, variously, Zama. A corregidor, he is an avatar of colonial power, absurdity and bureacracy under various hats and wig.

Based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto, this is an undeniably literary film - a properly post-modern reading of an existential piece, all problematising and variously unreliable - text as character, character as text. Benedetto's work is little known to Anglophone audiences, this work did not receive an English translation until 2016 - but variously in Spanish and native tongues (with attendant complexities in terms of what is subtitled and what is not) this film is seeking different understandings.

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It's gorgeous - the Argentine Academy made it their national entry for Best Foreign Language Film, and not just because of its qualities as a piece of writing, as a piece of performance. Its beauty was almost palpable, its landscapes (and hellscapes) caught with a seemingly forensic accuracy by Rui Pocas' cinematography. Lucrecia Martel has found something clear and crisp and captivating with her film, rooted in the affect of Zama, Daniel Gimenez who you might recognise from Blancanieves, who narrated Y Tu Mama Tambien. He has also worked with Almodóvar and both Agustin and Pedro are among the numerous co-producer credits, a list so extensive that I've only just noticed Gael Garcia Bernal's among them though I did clock Danny Glover at the time. One assumes at least some of that is because of the novel's reputation, but as a project it clearly deserved that kind of support.

It's not going to be for everyone. I don't say that to be exclusionary. This is a very particular film - one where particles of detail crystallise into observation, meaning and import accreting like nacre around grit, producing a pearl, a natural jewel. One whose revelations are sudden and violent, a cutting across and a coalescence of menace from tensions unseen. Films that are slow can be too slow, films that are slow and play with chronology can make things difficult - for every film that manages to be oneiric, hypnotic, there are films that are soporofic, tiresome. This is overwhelmingly the former, at least in my opinion, adding a tight-rope of audience engagement to its various knife-edges.

There's a llama - a repetitive creak from a fan - a metaphor made explicit in coastal framing - voyeurism - an unhappy equilibrium punctuated by fateful swings - playfulnesses that only become apparent in retrospect. The sound is at times locative, that creak carries more weight into a conversation than other indicators of privacy might, odd ambient noises, that llama in a conversation about a relocation to Lerma. There are synth-like sweeps, perhaps too strong, and there's the odd patch of jaunt that has the ring of familiarity.

The credits reveal, but I will tell you now, that those are songs from the Sixties and Seventies, reinterpreted to more traditional, contemporaneous, native instrumentation. Cover versions are yet another aspect of Zama's constructedness, its willingness to sweat detail. Work in costume and set is a given with period pieces, but there's a quality of work here - every tea dotted, every eye crossed.

Near the start we are told of a fish, "there's a fish", we're told, "the water rejects it". It informs enough of what follows to be worth mentioning here. This is another story, various told - there is a sequence that starts with a long journey up country in search of another that's reminiscent in various ways of other stories (though Hearts Of Darkness had more changed to become Apocalypse Now), but in and among its endings are moments that recall Lynch if not Borges, the multi-coloured horrors of other, more cannibal apocalypses, giallo, enough reference and complexity to the extent that having seen it I wanted to see it again. Some may not want to see it at all. Still due a UK release, I can only hope distribution is wide enough that people can catch it on the canvas that it deserves, as Zama achieves what the best literary adaptations do - what filled pages fills the screen.

Reviewed on: 20 Apr 2018
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Zama packshot
A 17th century army officer in Ascuncion, awaits transfer to Buenos Aires.
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Director: Lucrecia Martel

Writer: Antonio Di Benedetto, Lucrecia Martel

Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Rafael Spregelburd, Nahuel Cano, Daniel Veronese, Mariana Nunes, Carlos Defeo

Year: 2017

Runtime: 115 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: Argentina, Spain, France, Netherlands, US, Brazil, Mexico, Portugal, Lebanon, Switzerland

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