Zama is the cinematic equivalent of a mango rotting in the sun — but in a good way. A period piece that punctures any notion of nostalgia about the period in question, director Lucrecia Martel’s highly anticipated return critically scrutinizes colonialism. And it does so not with any radical change in form, but by merely adjusting the lens ever so slightly. In surveying Spanish-colonized Paraguay during the 18th century, the film never allows indigenous slaves and servants to slip from its frame, no matter what the white characters are doing. Even when it closes in on two Spaniards in conversation, the viewer will still hear the ceaseless creak of a native working a fan in the background.
Adding injury to insult, these details do not even undermine any traditional heroic explorer narrative, but instead the brain-frying boredom of paperwork, backroom glad-handing, paperwork, reviewing complaints and more paperwork. The gears of empire are oiled with blood, but they’re maintained by schlubs. Based on a 1956 Argentine novel by Antonio de Benedetto, the movie follows Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a nobody official in a backwater who’s long been hoping for a promotion and accompanying transfer to vibrant Buenos Aires. He’s been waiting years for this (the story itself takes place over nearly a decade), and said promotion never comes. His low-key haplessness is existentially despairing comedy of the highest order, and Cacho plays every indignity kicked his way with wonderful stoicism simmering with slow-boiling frustration.
Zama is the kind of historical film (the number of which have increased in recent years, which I believe to be a good thing) that refuses to concede even the smallest positivity to the history in question. The only way to pretend life in a 1700s colony was in any way a great time is to focus on myths of white male heroism to the exclusion of literally everyone else’s experience, to say nothing of the gross pre-modern conditions even those men lived in. There’s no better way to deflate a romanticized archetype than to show what it was like to get sick during their time (there’s a lot of shit-filled buckets and pantaloons).
After a certain point, Martel moves from deconstructing imperialism to the explorer narrative itself, as Zama finally gives up on sitting on his ass and sets out into the wilderness in hopes of catching an outlaw who may just be a myth. (After all, he was supposedly caught and executed already. The governor wore his ears on a necklace and everything.) Here the movie acquires an intimidating beauty, with these small men contrasted against the vivid green severity of the Paraguayan chaco. And strayed from the security of their outposts, it quickly swallows them up. They were never anything, the pretensions of superiority the film already squashed proven definitively empty.
Dan Schindel is a Maryland-born, currently Los Angeles-based film critic and freelance editor. Follow him on Twitter @DanSchindel.