In the opening sequence of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama, the titular government goon stands on a South American beach, longingly staring at the open water. His anguish in that thousand-yard-stare is twofold: a lonely desire to reconnect with his wife & children in his Spaniard home country and, more prominently, a soul-crushing boredom. All around him indigenous people are living their normal lives: sunbathing, chatting, playing in the sand with loved ones. Meanwhile, his own life is locked in a permanent stasis, as if his assigned post as a magistrate for the Spanish crown were a prison sentence, not an honor. It’s an excruciating fate, but he deserves worse.
Diego de Zama’s fate of being permanently stuck in a foreign land he finds to be a soul-crushing bore is a purely existential kind of torment. He pleads to higher-ups in the Spanish government from every possible angle, including letters to the Crown, to release him from this hellish Limbo, to no avail. If Zama were a moralistic tale about the evils of 17th Century colonialism, this professional prison where its wicked lead awaits a transfer that’s never to come might play like a just, torturous punishment for the sins of Spanish occupation he’s in charge of administering in Paraguay. Instead, the film plays the torture as a more surreal, existential plight; his punishment is made all the harsher & more satisfying because it is entirely meaningless and void of intent.
The bored, anguished stasis of Zama pushes beyond real-world logic to reach the surreal, philosophical existentialism of works like The Exterminating Angel & Waiting for Godot. The film’s mocking of civility is especially Buñuelian, as Diego de Zama & his fellow in-Limbo cohorts foolishly attempt to maintain their homeland nobility despite the indignity of their posts. Their white legislative wigs & vibrantly dyed fabrics look absolutely absurd in the Natural environments they’re tasked to occupy & govern. The juxtaposition of their heartless brutality & mannered civility is often allowed to clash for dark humor, as in scenes where the Spanish government goons enslave or beat locals and then politely kiss each other on the cheek according to custom. Just as often as it’s bleakly humorous, however, Zama allows the out-of-place quality of its damned protagonist to hang in the air for eerie surreality.
I won’t pretend that I fully understood the themes or drama of Zama beyond its existential anguish & mockery of civility, but I was often struck by the potency of its imagery anyway. Lamas, fish scales, naked children, and skin dyed red & blue disorient the eye with continual surprise, despite the contained, reality-bound premise. Diego de Zama is tasked with capturing a local rapist/murderer and bringing him to justice. This seems like a straightforward enough task, but it’s somehow played to be as pointlessly absurd as any of his other assigned duties. His distanced relationship with his family and his treatment of local black bodies as tools & furniture seem similarly ripe for narrative propulsion but are left to rot in discomfort along with the protagonist. Mostly, Zama functions as an eerie nightmare of Natural images, like a costume drama version of Icaros: A Vision. There are certainly historical & thematic elements of the film that sailed miles over my head, but being perplexed by a well-crafted image is its own kind of pleasure.