Written & Directed by Lucrecia Martel
Don Diego de Zama was sent by the Spanish crown to a remote colony in South America to serve as a functionary under the governor. When we meet Zama, he is standing on the shore, staring off into the ocean anticipating a vessel to carry him back to his family, a ship that will never arrive. This is the living nightmare that Zama exists in, a place where the governors come and go but where he is trapped. He suffers the temptations of the flesh, has belongings stripped from him, and has to reside in a haunted shack. Finally, Zama volunteers to be part of a doomed expedition to capture the infamous Vicuña Porto.
This Spanish-language film is a bit overwhelming; it tosses the audience right into the middle of the story and doesn’t handhold in explaining who these characters are. Once you can get your bearings; and it will take some concentration, you find an incredibly witty and genuinely hilarious satire on colonization. Spanish nobles view themselves as performing an act of charity for keeping native slaves in their households. Bandits hear rumors of stone coconuts with precious jewels inside never realizing these are worthless geodes. An innkeeper’s daughters feign a midnight assault when they get caught letting a man sneak into their beds. Poor Zama cannot find a break.
When the film begins, the corregidor has some modicum of power, with an assistant. It doesn’t take long for Zama to get into a pathetic wrestling match with his minion. He soon finds the man is getting to leave, even picking the city Zama wishes to get a transfer to. There’s a growing sense of limbo; a blend of surreality and painful realism. Every meeting Zama has with the revolving door of governors goes nowhere, and he gains nothing, these tête-à-têtes lead only to more suffering for Zama. He uses an illegitimate child that a native bore him as a lever to get the present governor to write a letter sending him home. The ruler states only after Zama investigates a potential subversive book a government scribe is penning. This deal doesn’t go as planned, and the writer receives a reward for his insubordination.
There’s a sense of the chaotic in every scene. Animals wander seemingly unpenned through the crumbling colony. A llama enters the office where Zama and the governor are chatting, a man is riding a horse through a courtyard and becomes bored by leading to him shooting it in the head. Throughout all this grim humor Zama is slowly worn down, losing his personality over the film’s nine years. By the time we get to the final section of the picture, he is a haggard man, allowing his hair and beard to grow unkempt. This last portion has him encountering the natives deep in the wilds of South America, leading to some fantastic moments.
There is a particularly eerie and beautiful scene where Zama and his men are sleeping hammocks only to have their sleep interrupted by a passing tribe. He learns from one of his men that the Spanish government blinded these natives for some rebellion. The only people left in the clan with sight are the children who use crude rattles and whistles to lead their elders through the jungle. At one point, Zama lays befuddled as an old native woman feels her way across him to keep up with her group.
Zama is a film that would quickly turn off general audiences. Its narrative is fluid and unconcerned with on the nose exposition. The beauty of the film is seeing the humorous and dark conflicts that occur when colonization is blighted upon a culture. Zama is the protagonist, but you’d have a hard time arguing he was the hero. He is sympathetic in certain moments, but you can also see his suffering as an extension of serving as the arm of destructive colonial power.