For her first foray into period drama, after three previous efforts that successfully explored societal rifts in contemporary Argentina, director Lucrecia Martel has claimed to have taken influence from science fiction, as opposed to following a naturally historically-inclined approach. So, despite what looks to somebody less educated in the Spanish Empire’s colonisation of South America like a film so well researched, watching it feels like staring through a window into the past, Martel has openly declared that historical accuracy was far from her mind.
In fact, after reading the source material (Antonio di Benedetto’s 1956 novel of the same name), she made a conscious decision to read any further into the period. This decision has resulted in a surreal, unique character study that prefers to look at the sins of the past via a hazy dream logic, as opposed to a conventional mode of storytelling. It may take multiple viewings to fully process what Martel has created here, but there’s no denying that her singular approach to adapting the novel has resulted in a portrait of a mercifully bygone era so divorced from our own, examining its intricacies has the cumulative effect of a lucid dream.
There are no concessions to audiences unfamiliar with the nuances of the period - and, with the aforementioned lack of interest in conforming to full historical accuracy, gliding through the purgatory of the locales represented in Zama proves to be every bit as unsettling as a Lynchian nightmare.
Daniel Giménez Cacho stars as Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer in the late 18th century who is awaiting to be transferred from the remote Northern Argentinian village where he’s staying to Buenos Aires. He is the local magistrate - assigned by Spanish authorities who rule the land after the colonisation of Argentina - who has been stuck in this part of the country for years, pining equally to escape to either a big city, or a mother country (Spain) that he barely knows. His life is monotonous, with the enclosed vista of the village surrounded by a jungle where masked warriors are rumoured to live, leaving him safely within the boring confines of Asunción as various governors assigned to oversee his transfer appear to come and go as they please.
Zama isn’t a film driven by plot, so much as it is driven by an incessant mood; a film where a quietly damning criticism of Latin American colonisation and slavery’s dehumanising effects can sit beside surreal nudist parlour games and sight gags involving llamas. It’s in seeing these elements side by side where you can understand why Martel felt approaching the film as a work of science fiction was the only rational way to tackle it. The past is so alien to the eyes of a modern observer, that the sins of prior generations are as hard to fathom as the everyday lives of the better-off members of society; how could they live peacefully, with a clear conscious, when they were surrounded by those who they purposefully enslaved?
In interviews, Martel has shown a disdain for the idea that cinema needs to act as an “empathy machine” that allows audiences to compassionately understand the struggles of lives removed from their own. With its disorienting electronic score, and lack of spelling out the underlying narrative context to the audience, she has shown that in some cases, keeping the audience at arm’s length is one of the wiser storytelling decisions available. Don Diego de Zama is not a man particularly worthy of empathy, with his pathetic nature acting as something of a subtle subversion of heroic tropes. This doesn’t lessen the impact of his struggle, especially as it’s depicted as a dreamscape for the audience to wade through - but there is an undercurrent of Bunuel-inspired surrealist farce to his frustrating living arrangements, meaning that although we feel the impact of the events unfolding before us, they don’t particularly endear us to Zama himself.
In the film’s third act, we head out into the jungle in search of a fugitive, leading to a more conventional approach to storytelling. The film takes a sharp left turn from its dreamlike stylisation, in favour of asking the audience to ponder the nature of Zama’s desired escapism from a different angle; the horrors of an outside world, less accommodating to the colonisation he condones, coming for vengeance. It’s an easier narrative trajectory for audiences to grasp, yet doesn’t dilute the effectiveness of the film’s depiction of a living purgatory prior to this.