Zama – Film Review by Frank L.
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Writers: Antonio Di Benedetto (based on the novel by), Lucrecia Martel
Stars: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele
There is a nine year gap between the making of Martell’s last film (A Headless Woman) and her adaption of Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel about Don Diego de Zama, a seventeenth century Spanish colonial officer, who awaits his permission to return to his wife and children. The film begins with him standing on a beach in all his colonial finery which is so different to the attire of the indigenous population. They are at times not clad at all. The difference in clothing runs throughout the film with sometimes bizarre manifestations as for instance when one native figure is befitted with wig and cut away blue frock coat as if he was a servant in a grand mansion; otherwise he was naked apart from a loin cloth. It is a fine example of a delusional existence in a colony.
The film seems to have three not very well delineated parts. The initial part in which Zama makes it clear to his superior that he wishes to be transferred back home to see his wife and children. Secondly, his superior’s apparent determination to thwart this wish by creating bureaucratic obstacles in his way and then in his frustration, Zama joining forces with renegades who are not in harmony with their own colonial authority.
The precariousness of the colonial hold on its territory is clear from the opening scene as immediately the camera cuts to a group of native women who are smearing their bodies with mud. Martel shows promptly how uncertain Zama’s position is, when he decides secretly to spy on the women only to be spotted by one of them as a peeping Tom. He gets his comeuppance. This opening sequence sets the tone for the film.
The colonialism of Spain is obviously different to that of Britain and other imperial powers but there are similarities. There is always the likelihood of sexual cohabitation. Also, there always seems to have been a high degree of boredom as there was little to do other than administer the native population whom the colonialists held in contempt.
The story meanders along in not very easy ways to follow. What is impressive is the excellent camera work which provides fine rendered scenes of interiors and stunning outside views both close up and distant. These hold the attention while the story in all its stops and starts barely does.