CAPSULE: ZAMA (2017)

DIRECTED BY: Lucrecia Martel

FEATURING: Daniel Giménez Cacho

PLOT: A Spanish magistrate at an Amazonian outpost in Argentina longs for a transfer so he can return to his family.

Still from Zama (2017)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s subtly strange, but we prefer much more strangeness and less subtlety.

COMMENTS: Form follows theme in Zama, a movie about a man waiting for a transfer that never comes, in which the viewer waits for a reason to keep watching that never arrives. If one is looking for things to praise, the usual arthouse accoutrements easy enough to point out: the wild Amazonian locations, the widescreen cinematography that captures it, and Daniel Giménez Cacho’s performance as the weary, increasingly resigned magistrate. After that, I fear, you’re pretty much on your own.

Zama has many plot oddments but next to no plot. It may too effectively capture the feeling of being trapped in a stifling, dull job while wishing you were somewhere else. It’s a series of mostly middling anecdotes with little connection, vague developments that often mystify without involving. A young boy declares our hero Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die.” Zama secretly courts a fellow official’s wife. Anachronistic Hawaiian exotica plays (admittedly, this sounds pretty cool). A black messenger repeatedly shows up with instructions for Zama; he doesn’t wear pants. Zama gets into a fight with a Spanish emissary for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. The governor promises to write a letter requesting a transfer for the magistrate, but never gets around to it. A llama wanders onto the set and the actors ignore it and continue the scene. (This shot impressed many critics, maybe because they were eager to praise the film but couldn’t find much else going on to talk about.) We learn that Zama has a bastard son. The colonists play dice; a geode is offered to cover a bet, but Zama insists it’s worthless. Zama hears a minor character’s thoughts. Zama catches a fever and moves to a hovel. He betrays a friend, hoping to get a letter of recommendation. Things pick up a little at the very end when he grows a beard and joins an expedition to hunt down the outlaw Vicuña, whom he has spent the movie insisting is dead. Then Zama dies. I don’t know what to make of these events, but I’m not inspired to make the effort.

While other critics raved about Zama‘s anti-colonialist ethos and poetic aesthetic, I side with general audiences in thinking that this one is—to put it bluntly—boring. It would benefit from cutting thirty minutes off of its meandering front end. Perhaps the problem is that it’s too faithful an adaptation of its 1956 source novel—Zama‘s meditative pace seems like it would read better on the page than it plays onscreen.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a patient, delicately strange film chronicling an increasingly impatient man and a destiny beyond his control.”–Michael Phillips, Chicago Tribune (contemporaneous)

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