ZAMA (2017) DIR. Lucrecia Martel
By Belle McIntyre
Based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Antonio De Benedetto, this is a strange and endlessly curious tale of Don Diego de Zama, a tragicomic Spanish colonial bureaucrat posted to an obscure Argentine outpost in Paraguay. There he is as much a conquerer as a victim of the rampant insensitivities and indignities of the social order imposed by colonial rule by European countries in the 17th century. As a citizen of Argentina and a subject of Spain, he is not really the steward of his own life, but more of a pawn in the social order into which he was born. The life in the expat community has become increasingly pointless and enervating to him and he deeply wants to be reunited with his wife and family. His efforts to get a letter from the King of Spain to request his return to Buenos Aires are being blocked in Kafka-esque ways at every turn.
We see the feckless Don Diego veer from preening vanity and meaningless protocols in his job as a magistrate, to inappropriate interactions with the indigenous women, one of which leads to an illegitimate son, futile attempts to seduce the haughty and lascivious wife of one of his peers, while trying to keep a low profile and play the perfect civil servant. The absurdity of the colonial lifestyle in the cosseted confines of their enclave surrounded by semi-literate, scantily clothed indigenous natives is scathingly depicted. When it becomes clear that none of his efforts at obtaining a transfer are working, and even his assistant is getting prioritized be begins to spiral into depression and desperation and starts behaving irrationally.
As a last ditch effort at altering the ennui of his situation, the formerly acquiescent functionary, decides to join an ad hoc vigilante group on an ill-conceived mission to hunt down the villainous and infamous bandit and local terrorist, Vicuña Porto, who is credited with an impossible litany of treacherous acts. At his point the film takes a totally different turn and becomes a fever dream of viciousness, violence and bloody cruelty and begins to resemble one of the films of the Chilean director, Alejandro Jodorowski. The apocalyptic ending for Don Diego is finally an almost religious liberation.
Daniel Gimenéz Cacho as Don Diego has wonderfully spare and chiseled features which register emotions mostly with the eyes. His lean lanky body first seen in the incongruous uniform of the empire in the dry tropical climate looks both elegant and absurd. By the end of the film, his ordeal with the hunt for Vicuña Porto has turned him into a haunted Christ-like figure. Matheus Nachtergaele as Vicuña Porto is almost laughably inept as a master criminal, whose reputation has far outstripped reality. Lola Dueñas as the wanton diplomatic wife, Luciana, is a favorite of Almodovar and has appeared in many of his films. She is magnificently over the top. The film is spectacularly filmed with gorgeous scenes of the unspoiled beauty of Asunción and its flora and fauna. I found it to be fully engaging and spectacularly interesting. I look forward to seeing some of her previous films.