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With: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Rafael Spregelburd, Daniel Veronese
Written by: Lucrecia Martel, based on a novel by Antonio Di Benedetto
Directed by: Lucrecia Martel
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Spanish, with English subtitles
Running Time: 115
Date: 04/27/2018

Zama (2018)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Conjunction Functionary

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

The great Argentinian filmmaker Lucrecia Martel returns to the screen after a far-too-long absence with her new Zama. Based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto and set in an 18th century filled with flouncy shirts and three-cornered hat, it's not exactly my favorite genre. In fact, given that most costume movies are dry and serious, I did not pick up on the idea that this was supposed to be sort of absurdist. It's not exactly a comedy, per se, and not at all laugh-out-loud-funny, but certainly absurdist. Like Martel's earlier films, it's a challenge — certainly images of 18th century slavery are not easy to watch — and casual viewers will be quickly put off.

Its hero, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), begins the film by striking a kind of noble pose by the seaside, and from there it's a downward slide. Nothing good happens to this guy, try as he may. He's a kind of mid-level government functionary of Spain, stationed in South America — he was born there — to oversee colonization. He has been away from his wife and kids too long and he yearns for a transfer. He jumps through a few hoops, writing the right kind of reports for the governor, but a transfer remains elusive. Meanwhile, he tries to sleep with a nearby lady (Lola Dueñas) but loses her to an underling. He has had a child with a local woman, but aside from occasionally dropping by to look at him, is not involved. He is forced to vacate his home, finding only worse quarters, and winds up having to pay for a funeral.

Throughout, characters speak in whispers of a notorious bandit on the loose, Vicuña Porto, and when it becomes clear that Zama is never going to leave, he joins a search for this scoundrel. This portion of the film is what Martel does best, recalling the heat and slovenliness of her remarkable debut feature La Cienaga (2001). It captures a loosely observant, drearily poetic tone as the men trudge through beaches and swamps. One man's arm slowly rots after a spider bite, and another man in the party reveals a brutal secret to Zama, once again reducing his powers to close to ineffectual.

Martel's vision of this world is not romantic in any way. She takes note of the dust and sweat and misery of this life, the stagnation and decay of it. Everyone looks vaguely uncomfortable, even as they try to relax, pounding cups of whisky or sitting in the vicinity of slave-operated fans. Yet while Martel's touch is visceral, she manages a constant, wry overtone. I think I like La Cienaga and her second film The Holy Girl (2004) better than this one; it could be that modern day — and less plot — suits her better, or it could be that it's my preference. But nonetheless, Zama is unquestionably a Martel film, and when it wraps up with its brutal final image, it's clear that we're in the hands of a master once more.

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