This article is adapted from Americas Quarterly’s print issue on Venezuela after Maduro
An early description of a water-averse fish fighting to stay alive works as a powerful analogy for the precarious circumstances facing the eponymous protagonist in Zama, the fourth feature-length work from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel. The film, in turn, offers an allegory for the perils and atrocities of Latin America’s colonization. Like the stubborn fish, imperial powers gripped tightly to the lands they conquered even when harsh environmental conditions and resistance from native inhabitants trampled their plans of expansion.
Based on the novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Martel’s first epic period piece premiered at the 2017 Venice Film Festival, nearly a decade after her film The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza). The tale follows Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish official in 18th century rural South America. Frustrated by the delay of his long-awaited reassignment, Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) finds himself at the center of a cultural whirlwind, surrounded by overdressed Spanish nationals, enslaved Africans, indigenous locals and fellow colonizers. The power dynamics guiding their interactions reflect the sense of decay present in the Europeans’ misguided entitlement to the territory.
Among the characters Zama meets is Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), an aristocrat whose defiance and longing for any vestiges of elegance in the midst of an oppressive summer lure Zama in. Taunted by their collective powerlessness over their fates, whether it is the Spanish who can’t leave without the king’s approval or the enslaved labor force, everyone seems to find the root of all evil in Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), a mythical bandit known for stealing, raping and slaughtering. By blaming it all on this intangible figure, their quotidian struggles become more bearable.
Zama is an immaculate directorial achievement. Perhaps even more pronounced than the luscious compositions of its frames and humidity-ridden aesthetic is the film’s disorienting sound design that occasionally overpowers conversations and elevates the mysticism surrounding Zama’s uncertain future. While reading between the lines is a required task when entering Martel’s cinematic labyrinths, the sun-drenched landscapes and sweat-covered wanderers in Zama make the film her most fascinatingly intricate puzzle yet.
AQ Rating: 9/10
Directed by: Lucrecia Martel
Written by: Lucrecia Martel
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín
Aguilar is a freelance film journalist