Lucrecia Martel’s adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto’s novel Zama (2017) is a costume drama that paints rich existential poetry, but what works in the form of written language doesn’t translate on the screen.
The foundations of existential drama are laid in Zama (2017) by its conflicted protagonist, who questions life as a concept and tends to bask in any of the philosophical schools of thought, from Nietsche to Kierkegaard.
That man is Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) – a royal conquerer, stationed by the Paraguayan shore near Asuncion. The story opens with Zama standing on the beach, in an authoritative frame where Zama’s poise looks fully “conqueresque”. That’s the only macho moment for the protagonist of Zama (2017). Years of his adventures are long gone though, and Zama is only waiting to be reunite with his family in Buenos Aires, therefore leave the hellish jungle in the past.
Daniel Giménez Cacho shines as the lost-in-thoughts Zama (2017)
Despite hordes of characters appearing on the screen, Lucrecia Martel sticks close to Daniel Giménez Cacho. All events are presented from his perspective, hung in a state of lethargy, as Zama grows older and comes undone. Cacho’s convincingly simmering role channels the hopelessness of don Diego with surgical precision. Camera often finds him lost in thoughts, observing the monumental nature surrounding him. Bitterness of don Diego feels omnipresent from the moment we meet him and until the very last moments of Zama (2017).
In the background Lucrecia Martel deploys the poignant if arduous narrative. Stretched across decades of impatient, hope-diluting waiting, the director takes her time to scrutinize the drama of don Diego from every angle. Martel deconstructs the ethos of adventurous pioneers, often the first image when thought of colonization, and trades it for a man in wrong place, unhappy and unable to admire the fascinating changes he’s part of. His reflections on colonialism are mostly critical, and characterized by Zama’s bigotry and lack of empathy for the locals.
Zama (2017) is beautiful to look at, but tedious to follow
Zama (2017) nails the visual part of the colonized territories. Shot on location in Argentina, Zama (2017) astonishes by its lapidary approach to cinematography, a whale of an effort that benefits from the meticulous sets and costumes. The exquisite dresses of the Spaniards, the characterisation of the indigenes, their villages – it’s all tremendously mapped. Martel really transfers the audience to the ways of life back then.
After a while, Zama (2017) becomes a ponderous film to follow though. In spite of its marvelous cinematography and Daniel Giménez Cacho’s classy take on Zama as a character, Martel’s narrative style flows like a stream of consciousness of a man wasting his life. But without narration that was originally used in the novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Martel’s protagonist feels distant and puzzling, even stodgy at times. It’s hard to get inside his head.
Martel’s auteur effort is ambitious but eventually pallid
I also noticed similarities between Terrence Malick’s metaphor in The Thin Red Line (1998) and Zama (2017). Martel too uses nature as a reflection of one man’s torpor. Nature becomes a silent porter of Zama’s gloomy mood; its stunning beauty is no longer noticed by don Diego.
In the end, Lucrecia Martel cannot be judged guilty of directing a film that misses an opportunity. As the director herself admitted, Zama (2017) strips down the macho conqueror type, undresses the romantic adventures and leaves them naked. However, there’s too little to keep us invested, especially when Zama isn’t invested in his life either.
Hate Grade: 5/10
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Writer: Lucrecia Martel
Based on: Zama, Antonio di Benedetto
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Duenas
Cinematography: Rui Poças
Movie watched during the New Horizons Film Festival 2018. Review updated on the 23th of August, 2020. Originally posted on the 18th of August, 2018.