“Zama”, which was Argentina’s official submission for Best Foreign Language Film Oscar in last year, is an odd, unconventional period drama which will probably frustrate you for good reasons. As leisurely observing its hero’s seemingly endless predicament and ennui, the movie demands us considerable patience and attention at first, but then it makes us slowly immersed into its vivid, realistic mood and background, and the overall result is sort of rewarding on the whole with some cerebral aspects to be savored.
Set in a remote South American colony in the late 18th century, the movie mainly revolves around the plight of Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a plain magistrate who has yearned to be transferred to a city far from where he has supposedly been stuck for years. His reason is simple; he misses his wife and children, and he has been tired of merely filling his position without doing nothing much. While he does his job whenever it is required, that does not give him any satisfaction at all, and he becomes more bored and frustrated as days slowly go by as usual in the colony.
While Zama joylessly goes through his mostly uneventful daily life, we get to know a bit about a few people around him. There is a deputy who is supposed to work under him but does not care much about their duty, and there is also a lady who is wife of a local high-ranking official and has been quite close to Zama for a while. When a business man associated with Zama visits the colony for his business matter, Zama takes him to the lady’s house, and the movie gives us a dryly humorous moment generated from their flat conversation.
In the meantime, Zama takes care of several small matters which do not mean much to him at all. At one point, he handles a case involved with a family who requests a bunch of native slaves to work for them, and he also visits a monastery and then talks with a bishop for a matter involved with dead bodies to be buried. As we listen to their conversation presented in the foreground, we see dead bodies being casually handled in the background, and the result is one of the most memorable visual moments in the film.
Zama later goes to the local governor for getting a permission for his transfer, but the governor himself is going to be transferred to somewhere, and he is only notified that he should try again when the new governor comes. When he meets the new governor, the new governor apparently does not give a damn about Zama’s transfer, and the situation becomes more difficult for Zama as it turns out that his deputy has been doing something else besides doing his duty. The new governor demands Zama should write an official report on that, and Zama has no choice but to follow the demand because, well, his superior is going to decide whether a letter for requesting his transfer will be sent to the King of Spain.
Of course, things do not go well for Zama, and we see how his circumstance gradually deteriorates further. When the new governor suddenly orders the inventory on a government building where Zama has resided, Zama has to move away to a shabby inn which feels like a haunted house, and there are a number of eerie moments involved with a few characters working and living in this desolate place. When he finally submits his report to the new governor, the new governor does keep his promise, but, alas, it turns out that there is another obstacle for Zama.
During its last act, the movie moves forward to some time later, and we see Zama becoming more desperate and exhausted than before. He finally gets a chance to leave the colony, but now he has to join a search party which is assembled for catching some infamous criminal, and he and other soldiers soon leave the colony and start their perilous journey in the wilderness which is full of potential dangers.
As they go deeper and deeper into the wilderness, director Lucrecia Martel, who also wrote the adapted screenplay which is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, provides a series of haunting scenes to remember. There is a spooky but poetic scene where Zama witnesses a bunch of blind natives during one night, and then there is also a tense scene where Zama and other soldiers get some harsh treatment after being captured by another group of natives. Thanks to cinematographer Rui Poças, the movie is full of evocative mood accompanied with realistic details to observe, and I particularly admire several vast, beautiful landscape shots shown later in the film, which further emphasize Zama’s increasingly trivial existence in his uncaring world.
In the end, Zama’s story arrives in a moment of madness and desperation, but the movie keeps its detached attitude as before, and its final scene will make you reflect a bit on what you have observed from the movie. To be frank with you, I am still scratching my head as trying to understand what exactly the movie is about, but I like its vivid, authentic period atmosphere, and I also appreciate its occasionally striking sound effects which often remind us of its hero’s disoriented state of mind.
As a typical arthouse film which mostly depends on mood and nuance, “Zama” is an admirable piece of work, and I understand to some degrees why some critics are enthusiastic about it, though I still feel some reservation on it. I recommend the movie for its considerable technique achievement, but please keep in mind that this is not something you can watch for casual entertainment.