Based on the novel by Antonio Di Benedetto written in 1956, on Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer of the seventeenth century settled in Asunción, who awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires.
It’s fair to say that Zama is one of those movies I’m enjoying more in retrospect that I did while actually watching it.
As befits a film about waiting for answers, viewing it was an experience as languid and enervating as the story unfolding, though its extraordinary vistas have since fixed themselves in my memory and refuse to leave.
For fans of director Lucrecia Martel waiting is something they know well, as this is her first film in nine years. Based on the novel of the same name by Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama relates the story of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a Spanish magistrate in 18th century South America.
He misses his family and is desperate to leave, with a new posting in Lerma, a town that is positively metropolitan compared to the dusty outpost where he currently resides, his aim.
But first he needs approval from the King, which requires letters requesting his move, and everyone who could help him promises a lot but delivers nothing.
The governor, brow red and beaded with perspiration every hour of every day, sticky wig perched on top of grubby hair, now looks nothing like an efficient officer of the crown, but he still has his rank and he can still intercede – with one of those crucial letters – on Zama’s behalf with the king. If he so chooses.
Elsewhere, absent treasury minister’s wife Luciana (played with enjoyable gusto by Lola Dueñas), deliciously unhelpful and enjoying every tiny scrap of power she can lay claim to, also says she will assist Zama – teasing him with the promise of kisses and missives that are never forthcoming.
Meanwhile life goes on, at a slow and steady pace, as local people work for their colonial oppressors, officials slump in sweaty wigs, and Spanish women flirt in their heavy brocade dresses and towering hairpieces.
Every day is hot and sweaty, with witty and barbed conversations, oiled with liqueurs, set to a rhythm of giant squeaky fans.
And really, nothing much happens, which is presumably one of the reasons why Zama is so desperate to leave. The town is so out of the way that Luciana points out that the newspapers her newly-ordered drinking glasses come wrapped in are more up-to-date that the ones they can obtain locally.
Everyone dissembles when it comes to helping Zama, and blames circumstances: “Time doesn’t pass when there’s no winter” says Luciana with a smile.
In an environment like this much is claimed to exist but doesn’t, and not just those letters to the King. As in all conquered lands there are hints of riches to be claimed, “coconuts” which appear to be round rocks filled with sparkling stones that look like gems but which Zama knows to be worthless.
And some things are said to no longer exist but may still be around. In this case Vicuña Porto, a near-mythical figure, both robber and rapist, whose vicious actions weave in and out of this narrative. Vicuña, we are told several times, has absolutely, definitely, already been executed elsewhere, and his blackened sliced-off ears even adorn a pendant round the neck of the governor. But is he really gone? If not who is he? And whose ears are they?
So it is fitting that as Zama waits for what he sees as his own right to freedom, life occasionally verges into the surreal; sometimes it’s not even clear what is real and what isn’t, as fevers take hold.
The exhaustion all the white people display while doing not very much at all is catching for us too, though luckily those visuals stir the senses. Heat suffuses every frame, with colours either dry and dusty or lusciously green when the story moves into the swampy forests. Animals fill backgrounds, including, at one point, a llama in an office (this is not actually the surreal bit).
Colonialism means Spanish settlers come to see him, complaining that having forced local people from their own lands, there is now no one to work for them. Zama is a man of his time and isn’t bothered by the injustices meted out, though his subordinate, Ventura Prieto, talks about freedom and slavery and ends up fighting his superior. To rub salt into Zama’s wounds, though Ventura is sent away for his trouble, he gets to choose where he goes, and plumps for Lerma.
Local women’s bodies are not their own and Spanish women are dependent on men for protection. Even Luciana’s forward manner is acceptable only on sufferance, and her position is as weak as any other white woman’s there. And Zama himself has no hesitation in slapping a local woman hard when she shames him for voyeurism.
Daniel Giménez Cacho as Zama is initially relaxed but increasingly frustrated, stoicism giving way to utter exasperation, his face ageing as he remains trapped in time. Doing everything by the book – as a magistrate should – has done nothing for him. And Zama’s decision to do something to push the situation forward is entirely understandable, even as it backfires spectacularly.
Meanwhile Matheus Nachtergaele’s Vicuña is entertainingly unpredictable, one minute questioning his own myth and the next living up to it.
I have to say by half way through the movie I was desperate for something to actually happen, and in the last third I was somewhat over-rewarded in this regard. The film suddenly crunches up several gears, tripping into violence that is horrifying but also, in some ways, expected.
This is really a movie you have to let wash over you, and simply accept its unhurried pace. Enjoy the beauty but don’t try to run ahead yourself, or it will be an experience as frustrating as Zama waiting for the transfer that never comes, from letters that have never been written.