Zama, Argentina, Spain , France, Mexico, The Netherlands, Monaco, Portugal, USA, Lebanon, Britain, Dominican Republic, 2017

Opens today, Friday, and on Sunday and Wednesday 6 p.m.

This is the new film by Argentinian film-maker Lucrecia Martel. Her earlier films, La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl  / La niña santa (2004) and The Headless Woman  / La mujer sin cabeza (2008) were fine examples of C21st Latin-American cinema. These three features were all set in a contemporary world and dramatised some of the contradictions in her home country. This new film is a literary adaptations set in the C18th and part of the Spanish colonial empire. The film was shot on digital formats and critics have rightly praised the visual style and sound design of the film.

The source of this story is a novel from 1956 of the same tiltle by Antonio Di Benedetto, [only translated into English in 2016]. Set in 1790 somehere on  a river dividing Argentina from Paraguay, the protagonist is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) a magistrate [‘corregidor’ government official}. We first see him in the film [as in the poster] staring out across the river, symbolising his frustrated hopes of a move: away and upward socially and economically. The book offered a subjective narrative and the film translates this into a hallucinatory telling that is full of ambiguities. The story takes in three different periods of Zama’s sojourn in this provincial city, best identified by the changing face [i.e. actor] of the governor under whom he serves. The first two periods focus on his recurring requests for a transfer and the contradictions of his work, a sort of C18th ‘Catch 22’. His social position is problematic because he is an ‘Americano’, born in this ‘new world’ where colonial characters from Europe control society and power. His ambiguous status is reflected in his attempt at sexual conquest, both amongst the European and the indigenous women.  These first two thirds of the film have a surreal quality with elliptical editing and moments of bizarre humour when, for examples, animals cross the frontier between the world of nature and that of human society.

The final third  involves Zama enrolled in an expedition to hunt down a local bandit, Vicuňa Porto / Gaspar (Matheus Nachtegaele) who could be as much myth as a criminal disruption. Now the film takes on aspects of horror: something Martell also essayed in her very fine The Headless Woman. The first two thirds of the film have some of the absurdist quality found in ‘magical realism’ There are the recurring and ineffectual social forays of the protagonist; writing by the characters that seems completely fruitless; and odd acts of sexuality and violence that seem totally arbitrary. The last part moves into the world of the exploration: a trope in Latin American fiction and film where the horrors that beset the Europeans and their helpers betoken the ultimate futility of their search.

Martell has scripted and directed the adaptation with genuine skill. Her cinematographer, Rui Poças, has produced a fine range of visual imagery, some in stark brightness, some in a pattern of lights and shadow. And the sound design by Guido Berenblum is really distinctive. using internal and non-simultaneous sound. Both have used digital formats which work well to produce a rather flat colour surface and aural depth that suits the non-realist form.

Her last film, The Headless Woman , was a terrific and successful melodrama dramatising class and corruption. So why have we had to wait nearly a decade for her latest film. Part of the answer lies in the number of territories where she has found funding. Clearly there has not been a rush of investors to support her work; the number of companies involved in the production takes up four columns in the Sight & Sound credits.. One is reminded of the comment of Osmane Sèmbene, comparing putting a film together as like making up a cigarette out of butt ends in the street.

The novel is, apparently, dense but only runs to 200 pages. if you have to wait to read a copy, which sound really worthwhile, then there is a fine review by J. M. Coetzee in ‘The New York Review of Books’ . This sets out the main features of the plot but also, importantly, give a sense of the tone and characterisations of the novel. It seems that Martell has been relatively faithful to the book but some material has been excised and some given greater emphasis.

At least the film is now here. It should be a treat, especially as there is a scarcity [at least in West Yorkshire] of films from this great cinematic continent. Sight and Sound have both a review and a specialised article on the film. There is also a transcript of an interview with Lucrecia Martell, excellent reading.

I found the film challenging at first. It took about half-an-hour before I felt clear about how the narrative worked. But from then on I followed the film fine. This included some colonial Spanish terms retained in the English sub-titles. So there is ‘corregidor’ and also ‘encomienda’ which referred to the practice of awarding control of indigenous people to colonialists.

There is one remaining screening this coming Wednesday [June 20th] and at present no sign of further screenings in the Leeds/Bradford area. Do not miss this film or, at some future date, you will be embarrassed during a discussion of the outstanding Latin-American films from the first two decades of the C21st.

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