Zama

Argentina (2017) Dir. Lucrecia Martel

Director Lucrecia Martel says making this film made her feel Stanley Kubrick was being cheeky for opining “no good film will ever be made from a good novel” (ironic given his track record with book adaptations). I’ve not read the 1956 novel Zama by Antonio di Benedetto so I can’t say if it’s any good but I can say the film sadly isn’t.

To clarify, Zama isn’t “bad” in the sense of dodgy acting, poor scripting, directing, etc. but considering I fell asleep many times within the first 45 minutes, the story is almost invisible and there is an awful lot of nothing happening, it is not a film that can easily be recommended except for either those who have read the book, the incredibly patient, or pseuds who fall for the Emperor’s New Clothes.

Apparently, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a lowly magistrate currently situated on a remote South American island on the Paraguayan river, longing to return to his native Buenos Aires where his wife and kids are. But every time he asks about his transfer, another obstacle is put in his way and his quality of life takes a downward turn each time.

Confession – I had to get that synopsis from other reviews for this film as I would never have discerned it for myself. For once, this isn’t me being thick but the script by Martel presuming the audience have either read the novel or are on the same wavelength as she is. The cold opening of Zama watching a group of women cover their bodies in mud is as abstruse welcome a film as you can get, setting the tone for the ensuing confusion.

Having read many favourable reviews for this film which outline a fascinating sounding story of historical drama, sexual frisson, and existential torment, I find myself scratching my head as to whether we saw the same film! Yes, I went back to where I dozed off to catch up on what I missed but even so, all I could find was the torment and historical drama!

Nudity is present but only in a non-sexual sense within the context of the island natives and their naturalistic approach to life. Of the meagre female presence in the story, the only to exude any kind of leanings this way is Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), who I thought was a lady of the gentry who had gone a bit stir crazy due from living on the island, but in fact was a prostitute who earned a comfortable life through her trade, though we don’t see her this side of her.

So what is the film about? I’d love to tell you but I have no clue, although I am sure you have already surmised that for yourselves. Maybe di Benedetto’s novel does a better job of conveying this, along with the existential trauma Zama and other characters endure, or maybe I did miss this aspect in a soporific haze. The ennui part comes across fine, though I doubt Martel intended for the audience to experience it for themselves.  

A bizarre third act does allude to some sort of territorial dispute between the natives and the European interlopers, the idea of the King of Spain claiming dominion over them, which they are taking out on those sent to passing moral and legal judgement on them. But, it isn’t something that stands out as much as a major theme as it should given its setting in the late 18th century ahead of Paraguay’s independence in 1811.

There is an early subplot involving Zama’s assistant writing a book that for some reason seems to terrify Zama’s superior, demanding the book be destroyed and the chap be admonished for not doing the King’s work whilst under the auspices of their offices. Unless the idea is the book was supposed to expose the idleness of the magistrates and not the concept of it being a fictional work on another subject.

Being unable to name the characters is not intentional – aside from Zama, they are so poorly drawn and introduced they could be anyone on the cast list found on IMDb. Names are thrown about with abandon but who they relate to remains a mystery, just another frustration with the script. One name that regularly crops up in discussion is Vicuña Porto, a notorious criminal the officials fear.

Porto’s mystery is revealed in the final act but by this point I neither could recall nor care why it was a big deal, and even then it still doesn’t feel like a big deal. This really sums up the ultimate problem with Zama, if you don’t get it you find yourself not caring about any of it, thus it near two-hour run time is wasted. The arguably is the worst feeling to have towards a film and Martel as the writer-director really has to take responsibility for this.

Arthouse cinema is a divisive beast so a film like this is going to have a niche audience. One look through the reviews on this site will show I am no stranger to such films, though the success rate in terms of me fully enjoying or understanding them is about average. However, more often than not they usually have something for me to get a grip on to allow me to expound upon the positives, but not everything is going to meet my low criteria.

In all fairness, the film is wonderfully shot, making good use of its glorious location and even though the characters are hard to fathom and like the cast seem committed in their performances. Even if I didn’t understand what was going on, they certainly did, which helps.  

Zama didn’t work for me at all to the point I can’t muster even the slightest enthusiasm for it, but more power to you if this is a five star film in line with your tastes. Definitely one for uber-niche audiences.

2 thoughts on “Zama

  1. I agree with you totally. I am at a complete loss to explain the many good reviews this film received here in New York. Of course, I’m also at a complete loss to explain the election of Donald Trump, but there you are.

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    1. Thanks! I always feel alone when not being able to get a highly rated arthouse film (or any film really) but it seems there are some brave vocal detractors out there too. I suppose my alarm bells should have gone off when Peter Bradshaw of the The Guardian gave it 5 stars – he’s noted for championing obscure arthouse films (although he did give Avengers: Endgame 5 stars too, so maybe he’s mellowing?).

      Oh, and we Brits don’t understand Trump’s election either, if that helps! 😉 😛

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