Don Diego de Zama thinks everything is beneath him. A bureaucrat in the Spanish colonial government, he dreams of leaving Argentina for a station that matches the dignity he imagines for himself. Zama is a satire about his fall from power (if he ever had it in the first place). Director Lucrecia Martel’s first film in a decade is a marvel, but a ponderous one. A lot of the drama happens in the background, away from whatever squabble Zama finds himself in. There is also a formal beauty to the film, while not exactly serving as a travelogue. This is the sort of comedy that’s not exactly funny. Its points are too angry – and dispassionately argued – to be a laugh riot.
Daniel Giménez Cacho plays Zama, and he is in nearly every scene of the film. He looks a little like Ben Gazzara, an actor who could reliably play serious-looking men in deeply unserious conditions (you may recall him as the villain in Road House). Cacaho is like that, too, keep his disbelief and woes to himself. When we first meet Zama, everyone around him is worried about Vicuña Porto, a criminal and fiend who might also be a tall tale told by bored people. Everyone in Zama seems bored, even the natives who have no obligations beyond fanning their captors. Zama is too ambitious to be resigned – he wants to leave for the more cosmopolitan capital – except his superior will have none of it.
There is a strange, languid scene where Zama converses with Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), a noblewoman. She talks of Europe as if she will never see it again, and yet any connection with her home continent is a sacrosanct luxury. She talks about cocktail glasses like she might talk about a priceless family heirloom. What makes this dialogue so intriguing is Dueñas’ performance, which is quietly satirical, and what happens and the background. Slaves literally fawn over these European characters. It is necessary to Martel’s purpose that they stay in the background, so we can see how they’re treated like furniture or an electronic appliance.
All Zama wants is a little respect. He asks for his superior to send a letter to the King of Spain, guaranteeing a change in scenery. He gets assurances and promises, which of course do not amount to anything. The sliver of land Zama oversees is forgotten, to the point where many of the interiors look unfinished. Zama is a striking film, even beautiful at times, but Martel does not frame her shots so they look like paintings. Instead, the production design has a forgotten quality to it, as if Zama and the others can only feign what elegance looks like. That they speak with such affected accents, persisting that they deserve better, only deepens their delusions. Zama is pitiless like Barry Lyndon, except at least Kubrick gave his characters outward appearance of wealth.
In its final half hour, Zama takes on a more traditional plot. Our hero enlists with a military operation, wandering the landscape with a group of slaves and disgraced soldiers. This is where Martel finally articulates her bitter frustrations with the consequences of colonialism. We finally meet Vicuña Porto, who is not a boogeyman so much as an ordinary man who sees no need for conventional morality in a place where no one is coming to find them. These last images are horrifying, albeit in a quiet way, and yet Zama ends like an elegy. Colonialism debases everyone, including the perpetrators. According to Martel and her masterfully controlled drama, perpetrators can only find a moment’s peace after resigning themselves to shared humanity among those they wrongly dominate.