A colonial ghost story, Zama is the tale of a man haunted by his place in history. The movie centers on Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho), a Spanish official stuck in a vaguely colonized, 17th-century South American backwater. Desperate for a more civilized assignment, if not a return to Spain, Zama halfheartedly presides as judge for the outpost, serving beneath a capricious governor. Mostly, he languishes.
Languishing is a specialty of Argentine director Lucrecia Martel, who here is adapting a novel by Antonio Di Benedetto. In the likes of La Cienaga and The Headless Woman, Martel traces malaise among Argentina’s bourgeoisie, hinting that the country’s contemporary spiritual state is linked to its colonial past. (Members of the indigenous servant class play small but crucial parts in both films.) With Zama, Martel no longer hints at that past, but actively exhumes it, unleashing ghosts in the process.
Zama opens with its title character standing at the banks of a massive river. Against this vast, wild backdrop, his regal Spanish uniform looks comically out of place. He holds himself with an uneasy air, his posture that of an uncertain usurper rather than a brash conqueror. As the movie proper begins, there are occasions where Zama’s inner doubts are voiced back to him by other characters, as if they’ve been possessed by his insecurities. (The first time this happens, it involves a creepy child being carried in a chair on the back of a slave.) At times, as the camera peers in on Zama’s weathered, pained face, the soundtrack floods with distortion, as if your ears are ringing.
Zama never explicitly connects its lead character’s distress with Spanish conquest. Like the title character of The Headless Woman, Zama can’t psychologically articulate his guilt. Indeed, he never questions the king or the hierarchical structure of the society he helps run, even if he seems to recognize that something is deeply out of order. The wife of another official (Lola Duenas) describes their outpost this way: “We have almost no occasion for elegance here.” Yet they insist on sad simulacrums of an elegant lifestyle: their dirty, dusty wardrobes; incomplete sets of cocktail glasses; giant, creaking fans that must be operated by a servant or slave who stands silently in the corner. (The point of the latter seems to be reinforcing class roles more than providing relief from the heat.) Overall, Zama and his fellow Spaniards resemble people who have been sitting too long in the tub, pretending not to notice how dirty the water has become.
Martel no longer hints at the past, but actively exhumes it.
Zama is dismal, but this being Martel, it’s also darkly funny. The soundtrack is given to ironic bursty of jaunty music. There are frequent appearances by a black messenger sporting a white wig, a bright turquoise jacket with tails, and no pants. As Zama’s transfer requests get repeatedly redirected through the Byzantine bureaucracy, the movie comes across as a colonial riff on Terry Gilliam’s Brazil.
As Zama, Cacho deftly juggles the film’s various moods, at turns making this morose man a sad clown, a risible villain, and a sympathetic victim. There’s always a slight panic in his eyes, even when he’s puffing himself up with as much authority as he can muster. If you despise Zama for his willing role in an oppressive system, Cacho’s performance also makes you empathize with his bewilderment, especially as that system begins to succumb to its own absurdity.
Eventually, you fear for him, as Zama gives in to ghostliness, then madness. The movie’s hauntings are brief and strange, but deeply resonant. There are three sisters who float around Zama like sexual apparitions. A sprite of a boy pops into the frame here and there to snatch an item and then disappear. For a period of time Zama moves into a decrepit inn on the forest’s edge, where he sees other guests drifting around but is later told he’s the only one staying there. The servant who tells him this is shot in silhouette, melding into the darkness as she speaks.
Eventually, Zama gives up on a transfer and volunteers for an ill-fated mission to find and kill an insurrectionist who may or may not exist (throughout the film we’ve heard various, conflicting accounts of his reign of terror). This final section takes a Herzogian turn, as a hapless band of first-world colonizers fall victim to fetid insanity, much like those in Fitzcarraldo and Aguirre, the Wrath of God. Sleeping in hammocks in the midst of a grassy marsh, Zama and the others awake to a tribe of blinded “Indians” silently passing through the camp, their hands running across the horses, packs, and faces of the Spaniards. These touches are not blessings, but accusations, and indeed the next day a price will be paid for the transgressions that have been committed. Zama itself is something of an accounting. It’s a spooky tale about the time and place where the ghosts that still haunt Argentina were first birthed.