Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel’s 2017 film is a decadent commentary on the colonisation of America and its aftermath.
2017’s Zama marked Lucrecia Martel’s awaited return to feature filmmaking after a nine-year hiatus. Martel intended the film as a homage to the Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto, imprisoned and tortured during the military dictatorship of General Rafael Videla, and forced to spend most of his life in exile in Europe. According to Martel, the 1956 book of the same name gave her a real feeling of euphoria, in the sense that she felt that she understood ‘something fundamental about human existence’ — although she didn’t know what it was exactly. She subsequently tried to make a film which reflected this feeling, a film about, in her own words, ‘what time is like when one does not have time anymore, when life is over’.
The eponymous character, Diego de Zama, is indeed a man who does not have time anymore. While his life is not ‘over’, per se, his existence is stuck in a continual loop, a stagnating limbo that mirrors the palpably decadent 18th-century Spanish colony in Paraguay where the film is set. Zama is a Spanish magistrate, avidly waiting to be re-assigned to a post in the city of Lerma, but the more he begs for this promotion, the more it seems to escape him. Like Sisyphus carrying his immense boulder to the top of the hill, only to see it roll back down every time, he waits and waits, his bitter frustration growing painfully into resentment. Martel gradually builds the portrait of this man, who is, in essence, the absolute loser, his frustrated yearnings piling one on top of the other in a very dry but comedic way.
Zama is unlucky in every single aspect of his life. He keeps getting thrown out of his various households and ends up living in a dilapidated house for the majority of the film. The object of his desire, the noblewoman Luciana Piñares de Luenga, rumoured to have the most beautiful body in the region, uses Zama for the benefits he can provide as a civil servant, but constantly rebuffs his sexual advances.
Zama’s absolute fiasco of an existence is a close microcosm of the failure that was the Spanish colonisation of America. Indeed, Zama finds himself in the midst of a chaotic panorama: the news from Europe never arrives, the mail goes missing, there is an absolute lack of political coordination, a total neglect from Spain and a cholera epidemic sweeping the land. All of these issues point towards the disastrous administration of the colonies by the Spanish settlers. Every aspect of life is tinted in a decadent sense of ridiculousness. The costumes are degraded, torn and dusty. One can imagine the smell of Zama’s crimson jacket he wears for the entirety of the film. The characters sometimes do not even bother to wear their old white regency wigs on top of their black hair. Martel sees humour in the absurdity of the ‘on-the-ground’ failings of the Spanish colonisation of America. She portrays the Spanish civil servants and noblemen as a horde of incompetent drunkards, and pokes fun at their state of complete disorientation, in a land they do not know and fear, a land where they have unjustly claimed absolute sovereignty and power.
Zama is a decadent commentary on the colonisation of America and its aftermath. The film’s tone sometimes hesitates between absurdist comedy and epic western, but its message is clear: Martel taps directly into the anxiety surrounding the Latin American identity. She chooses to focus on those 18th-century Spanish civil servants who have lost all sense of purpose. We can only watch them at a distance, from our own perspective, smiling as Martel pokes fun at them, as they sink deeper into their own ridiculous decrepitude.
Where to Watch:
In conversation with… Lucrecia Martel on Zama (BFI, 2018, 34:25)