Lucrecia Martel’s films have always contended with colonialism, but through the Argentine director’s characteristically elliptical style. In her acclaimed Salta Trilogy, Martel’s postcolonial critique creeps in gently, through peripheral details: First, in La Cienaga (2001) and The Holy Girl (2004), it’s in the bourgeois protagonists’ offhand racism toward their native servants; then, in The Headless Woman (2008), we see the ease with which characters brush aside the possibility of having accidentally killed an indigenous child.
With her fourth feature, Zama, an adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel about a corregidor stationed in a remote South American backwater of the Spanish Empire, Martel engages directly with Argentina’s colonial legacy, although her approach remains allusive and layered. She transforms Benedetto’s epic into a dizzying, sensory head trip about a man’s gradual psychological decay, allowing larger historical and political themes to emerge organically from her meticulous formal compositions. Our introduction to Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), in the film’s opening wide shot, demonstrates this beautifully: As barely clothed native children frolic freely behind him, Zama stands on the beach gazing morosely at the ocean, as if awaiting his deliverance, his government attire comically stiff for the setting. The composition recurs in the film, with Zama’s strained pomposity undercut by the presence of the colonized in the background. They either affect a rigid, almost parodic servility that occasionally ruptures into something subversive (at one point, a mute maid slyly coaxes Zama into walking in on a sexual tryst between his rival and the woman he desires), or they roam the filmic space with a nonchalance that contrasts starkly with Zama’s posturing.
Zama spends most of the film in endless anticipation for a transfer to Lerma, where his wife and son await him. In the meantime, he occupies himself with petty bureaucratic matters and obsessive sexual conquests that chip away further at his sanity. He gets caught eavesdropping on a group of women bathing by the sea; “voyeur!” they yell. It’s a misnomer — he was listening, not watching — but it offers an appropriate metaphor for the film’s own mode of listening. Martel and her longtime sound designer Guido Berenblum use inventive audioscapes to draw us into Zama’s fraying subconscious. They approximate the novel’s unreliable first-person narration by rendering several characters’ dialogue and inner monologues into a single, quasi-hallucinatory voiceover, accompanied by ambient sounds that fade in, out and into each other. The illusory, ever-descending “Shepard tone” sounds at crucial junctures, capturing Zama’s feeling of emotional free fall.
Even as Martel steeps the film deep within Zama’s perspective, she observes his tortuous male pathos with the critical distance of a female gaze. He does cut a pitiful figure — especially in the second half, when he is cast into the wilderness and endures bodily castrations at the hands of bandits — but he remains satiric, a parody of masculine and colonial self-importance. His interactions with women are revealing: When he tries to gain an aristocrat’s favor by affecting European pretensions, she reminds him curtly that he is, in fact, an American-born Spaniard. Later, when Zama is ejected from his home, he turns to the mother of his (hitherto ignored) mestizo child for help; “I am not your wife,” she snaps. Zama’s delusional superiority dooms him to his circumstances. He expends all his energies trying to stay put in a place where he doesn’t belong.