Reel Critic: ‘Zama’


“Zama”, shown in the Hirschfield Film Series, is based on a 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto.

From its very first moment, you are submerged into the intoxicatingly chaotic and bewildering world of colonial Argentina —  into the world of “Zama.” Based on the 1956 novel written by Antonio Di Benedetto, “Zama” follows the story of a Spanish officer, Don Diego de Zama, as he attempts to obtain a transfer letter from the King. A letter which never arrives. He feels cheated by the system and hopeless in his attempts to better his own life and return to his children.

The elaborate costumes, breathtaking landscapes and incredible wildlife all contribute to the authentic aesthetic of the film, based on the 1956 novel written by Antonio Di Benedetto. 

But not all is focused on beauty in this film. Throughout, there are scenes of disease and violence that are as present and as inevitable as the tropical heat itself. For instance, Zama’s close friend, El Oriental, contracts cholera and dies amidst Zama’s blooming relationship with the noblewoman, Luciana — a relationship which then turns out to be as false and contrived as Zama’s hopes of a transfer. While Zama seems stunned, everyone else around him remains unmoved. His other interactions had a similar sense of frivolity and deception, creating a resounding feeling of isolation not only for the officer but the audience as well. 

After many years of relentless disappointment and fruitless relations, the officer joins a search party to capture an infamous criminal, Vicuña Porto. The criminal is blamed for every wrongdoing and calamity in Zama’s town and serves as an overarching scapegoat for the bureaucracy. Porto joins the group alongside Zama in the search party for himself, unknown to anyone but the officer. Zama discovers that the criminal is not in fact the omnipresent and vile villain which the apparatus paints him to be — Vicuña Porta is searching for the same light as Zama in the vast swamp of colonial corruption. 

In an ironic and cruel twist, Zama tries to explain to Porto the futility of his mission, the lack of hope in his endeavors. He tells Porto, “I am trying to tell you what no one told me before,” Porto responds by mutilating Zama. 

Although there is a palpable cultural barrier, to those unfamiliar with the period’s history and the Spanish tongue, the emotive language of the film is genuine and familiar. Director Lucrecia Martel makes an interesting decision to omit subtitles for the native language speaking scenes of the film. As if to say that amidst the backdrop of colonization, this part should be left untouched.

The plot itself is cyclical and remains in the confines of Zama’s struggles against the backwards nature of his government. At times difficult to watch, it established true empathy towards the officer, as his frustrations become your own. 

The film moves slowly; it takes its time. It leaves no choice but to pay attention to every look, every line and every long pause which would otherwise be lost. It’s deeply emotional and conceptual, much more so than it is climactic or even conclusive. Zama answers no questions, but asks plenty in return. 

I left the theater unsettled but fully enthralled by the fascinating yet daunting portrait painted by this film. There is a tale told at the start of the film, of a fish that spends its entire life swimming against the current of the water which tries to spit it onto the shore. It fights to stay stagnant all the while hoping to swim farther. Zama is ultimately a story of expectation, desire and the perpetual question of destiny. Will we, or won’t we?

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