Movie Review

Zama (2017) by Lucrecia Martel

Original Name: Zama

Director:  Lucrecia Martel

Runtime: 105 minutes

Language: English

IMDB Link:

Lucrecia Martel: Born in 1966 in Salta, Argentina, Lucrecia Martel studied at Avellaneda Experimental (AVEX) and attended the National Experimentation Filmmaking School (ENERC) in Buenos Aires. She is a member of Argentina New Wave that began in 1998.  From 1995 to 1998, she made a series of documentaries for TV as well as a children’s TV programme, hailed by the Argentinian press for its unusual dark humor. Prior to Zama, Lucrecia Martel has managed to make three very personal feature films, in which she explores her favorite theme, troubled minds.

“In Argentina, identity is something that gets talked about a lot. It’s an absurd, nationalistic identity. It’s not a healthy identity. To many Argentines, the problems of indigenous people seem like anachronisms, like something that doesn’t accord with what it is to be Argentine. In Argentina there still exist very serious problems concerning ownership of the land that even after 200 years of independence have yet to be resolved.”

“Zama” is a hard film to give a clear opinion on. It’s a film that I’m consistently impressed, but it also consistently keeps viewers at arm’s reach. This quality, after all, is one of “Zama”’s main theme: alienation. This colonial world is wholly foreign, our main character Zama is adrift with his thought to escape the place, and the events that unfold is surreal as well; sometimes it functions like a dream logic, other times the disorienting sound, dialogues and saturated color allure the sense that all of this is in Zama’s head (Daniel Giménez Cacho). Martel’s films always tackle the state of Argentina’s class, race, and gender in some ways: its collapsing bourgeoisie in La Cienaga (2001) and Headless Woman (2008) as an example. In “Zama”, she presses the issue more than any of her other films. The indigenous people, seen through our protagonist Zama’s eyes, is just a part of the landscape. It’s the image of a white man who is at odds of his surrounding, of the absurdity of white colonosiam. It’s like how the native always have a deep spiritual connection to land, something that Zama completely lacks.

The prologue before the title rolls informs you perfectly about the tone and theme of the film. As Zama stands by the shore looking out to the sea, he looks the part according to his position – a local magistrate. Things quickly go absurd however, as we witness him peering at naked indigenous women. After getting caught, he slaps the poor woman who chased him. Throughout the course of the movie, irony and humiliation play a huge part in Zama’s life. He hates this forsaken land and asks to reassign to Lerma, just so that with three Governors passing, he still can’t leave, worse his inferior is “punished” to Lerma before him. He flirts with a noblewoman Luciana (Lola Dueñas) just so that one night he realizes she has slept with his rival. He says he hates black women but then it’s revealed that he has a son with one of the indigenous girl, who doesn’t give him a damn. It’s intentional, as a result, that these characters he meet during his stay as a local magistrate are interchangeable. The dialogues make less sense as the film goes, and these characters behave the same towards Zama: affectionless.

Then it comes to a completely different narrative in the last part (some might say it’s a different film altogether) as Zama joins the group to the wilderness to find an urban legend that might or might not exist. The part goes surreal, although “Zama constantly changes its protagonist roles with irony and humiliation, many times over. The sound editing further shapes the film’s tone and narrative. Anything… insect sounds, animal howling, environmental chatter, sounds that impossibly exists in the context of the film… they all building up to signify the restless, confused mind of Zama. In one of the interview, Martel said that she frames the dialogues overlapping to Zama’s face so that it becomes blurred who delivers which lines, as if they’re all merged into one. Which is fitting. As Zama struggles to look for his own existence in this faraway land, so does the deep unsettling of colonialism, the continent’s identity itself.

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