Lucrecia Martel’s first film in nine years is a wonderfully weird, dreamlike voyage, but one that never really goes anywhere. Based on the novel by Antonio di Benedetto, it is in some ways a period drama. The costumes, wigs, hats and all would suggest a sincere portrayal of an 18th century Spanish colony. However, the story is founded on a comedy that surrounds its main character, who sits waiting, desperate to leave his current situation but is seemingly powerless against it, unable to accept the impotence of his role.
Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is a Spanish magistrate who has been placed in a small colony on the backwaters of Paraguay. He has been separated from his wife and children, and is desperate to be transferred to another post. He sits and he waits for the King to reply to his letter, granting him admission to move, but it never comes, and there is the feeling of inevitability that this is where he will stay. His ineffectual approach to going about his business reinforces the sinking feeling that he will never be able to persuade the king to take notice of his pleas. He is trapped in some kind of dystopian purgatory, where nothing seems to get anywhere, including him. His so-called meetings are amateur, his flirtations with a noblewoman are rebuffed, and his many requests and letters all fail to gain a reply. He is ineffectual, and his younger business protégée seems to gain more respect from his peers and more female attention, to Zama’s great annoyance.
He wanders around aimlessly, stagnant and isolated. In the opening scene, he stands on the shore, head held high, in a pose that suggests total power and confidence. He stares out to sea, regal, but suddenly he realises that no one is there to admire him, and suddenly even the sea begins to seem ridiculous, the waves plopping pathetically at his feet. He then lies behind a bush, thinking he cannot be seen by a group of naked women bathing in mud, but when they do spot him, rather than being afraid, they ridicule and chase him up the beach. This amounts in yet another undermining of his power and presence.
There is something in every scene that counteracts his attempts to be important. Whether that be the repetitive sound of creaking wood whilst he tries woo his love interest, or a stray llama wandering into a supposedly important appointment. The film begins moving somewhat when Zama decides to track down a notorious criminal, finally gaining the vague sense of purpose that he has been longing for, after being in limbo for so long, even if there is the inevitable feeling that he may not succeed in this mission either.
The end of the film is like emerging from a deeply intoxicating dream. We’re aware that time has passed, but we have no idea how much. It’s particularly surreal, so some might find it a little inaccessible, but once you let go of the need to understand everything, it is a beautiful film to watch. You will emerge knowing that you have seen something deeply moving and powerful, without really knowing why, which is sometimes what makes something wonderful.
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