Ten minutes into Zama, the central character, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is called to the shore to receive an unexpected visitor, a trader from Montevideo. Cut to an establishing shot of several unfamiliar people moving and milling about Zama—an image that does not establish (in the conventional mode of narrative exposition) very much at all. Then the film transits to a close-up of a wary Zama, placed on the left-hand side of the frame, bringing to his lips the drink that his associate, Indalecio (Germán de Silva), has just poured for him. Various shouts, from off-screen, ping around the sound mix. Indalecio, also off-screen, presents his request for administrative help with the visitor’s business affairs (“Your relationship with the Treasury Minister is good?”) to Zama, who is still in his off-center close-up. Several subjects are elliptically raised in their conversation as the shot churns on: the state of Zama’s family back in Spain; the lack of salary payments to him and his colleagues. Finally, Indalecio strides through the frame, with his back to us and quickly becoming blurred in the camera’s focal range. Jump-cut to the introduction of this rather nervous new character, referred to as The Oriental (Carlos Defeo), feebly holding an umbrella for shade.
Just when we might imagine the scene has reached a relatively straightforward level of explication, something decidedly strange and dreamlike occurs: again floating in an out-of-focus blur behind Zama’s head is a child (“Oriental Son”, played by Vicenzo Navarro Rindel) being carried aloft in a chair; the boy turns to his off-screen servant and whispers that Zama is “a god who was born old and can’t die. His loneliness is atrocious.” “Are you talking to me?”, inquires Zama, as a synthesized note (the musical device known as the Shepard Tone) disorientingly begins on the soundtrack, and the child’s recitation (no longer tied to the movement of his lips) continues to spin Zama’s fabulous legend.
Lucrecia Martel’s Zama is, alongside everything else that can be said about it, an extraordinary work of adaptation. Martel speaks of having entered not only the world of Antonio Di Benedetto’s remarkable 1956 novel of the same name, but also the inner processes of the Argentine author’s creative imagination. While following the basic outline of the book, she takes the usual liberties involved in page-to-screen adaptation: characters are subtracted, events are condensed, interior monologues are transposed into exterior dialogues. But Martel has allowed herself a far greater margin of freedom in this genuine “re-imagining” of the novel.
In the scene described above, for example, an incident from the book is faithfully staged and recreated, yet at the same time it is approached and rendered obliquely: the choice of angles, the atmospheric sound design, the ellipses, and the decisions to push so much of the action into either off-screen space or blur, all serve to constantly redefine and transform the nominal “center” of the action. Not to mention those sudden swerves from reality to fantasy—two realms that are never quite distinct, anyhow, right from the film’s opening moments.
While Zama can be watched and appreciated in a self-contained way, without prior knowledge of Di Benedetto’s book, it also gains enormously from a back-and-forth experience shuttling between novel and film. Like Raúl Ruiz’s Time Regained (1999), it is at once a commentary upon, and a dream of, its rich source of inspiration.
In this late 18th century-set tale of the Spanish colony of Asunción in Paraguay, Martel deliberately withdraws certain connections between the events as described by Di Benedetto—all the better to make her film a kind of narrative archipelago (as Saad Chakali has described the work of Claire Denis), a floating set of possible scenes and situations. In the process, certain incidents become even more mysterious than in the novel: whereas Zama, in the book, begins by “snooping” upon the lady Luciana Piñares de Leunga (Lola Dueñas) and her entourage bathing by the shore, in the film this object of his gaze—and more so, his listening to the spoken music of dual languages—is not immediately clear (all the women are caked in mud). A consequence from the novel is lacking: the challenge to Zama of a duel issued by Luciana’s aggrieved husband. Yet both versions of the bathing scene end in the same, abrupt way: with Zama brutally slapping the naked woman who, in a bold, chastising and possibly playful spirit, pursues him.
There will surely be many commentaries on Zama as a film about the politics of colonialism, past and present: as such, it can be networked with a lively range of pertinent comparisons, from Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) to, more recently, James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2016) and—closer to Martel in style and tone—Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja (2014). In some senses, however, Zama plays down this ever-lurking, political theme. The Zama we see, after all, is no adventuring, voyaging hero. Passing time in this colonial outpost has made him little more than a petty bureaucrat, and a pretty ineffectual one even at that level.
Now, all Zama can do is wait—wait for official permission to travel elsewhere, a dispensation that keeps getting granted to everyone else (even those criminally indicted) but not to him. Zama is about a prolonged, agonized process of mundane waiting (Di Benedetto was a Kafka fan)—a process that hollows out personal identity and dashes all lingering hope. The novel is dedicated a las víctimas de la espera—"to the victims of expectation." And Zama’s only moment of genuine self-realization comes when he is, at last, able to offer someone what he himself has never enjoyed: words of truth without any false promise of hope attached.
Zama’s distorted mirror-double, on all levels, is the equally legendary outlaw, Vicuña Porto (an impressively sinister, disquieting role for Brazilian actor Matheus Nachtergaele). We constantly hear that Vicuña is feared by all, that he is seemingly able to infiltrate anywhere and rape, wound, or kill anyone—but this is always countered by the official advice that he has been “killed a thousand times already.” That is, until Vicuña indeed materializes, when and where we least expect him, in the latter stages of the story. But the myth of this villain who can withstand a thousand deaths constitutes a mockery in Zama’s mind: for he, by contrast, is the hero “born old,” whose former glory days can seemingly never be resurrected.
In Di Benedetto’s novel—and this we can read etched into the darting eyes and tense facial muscles of Daniel Giménez Cacho—Zama is forever contemplating his wonderful past in relation to his dire present and his even less certain future, but without any teleological reassurance that these three Zamas constitute the same person: “Perhaps this present Zama who claimed to resemble the Zama to come was built upon the Zama who once was, copying him, as if timidly venturing to interrupt something” (from Esther Allen’s superb translation, published by New York Review Books in 2016).
Lucrecia Martel has frequently recounted her unique approach to cinematic storytelling: a narrative does not go in a single line straight ahead, but, once initiated, constantly spreads out in all directions at once, creating multiple echoes, inversions, virtual or imagined events. Adapting Zama confronted her with the challenge all screenwriters face when handling a novel told in the first person: how much of that interior narration can be kept as it is (in voice-over), displaced elsewhere (into dialogue), or somehow transposed to another register, another stylistic level? Martel took the brave and undoubtedly risky move of foregoing what constitutes a very large part of the novel’s appeal: Zama’s tortuous (and blackly funny) justification, in his head, of every bizarre action he takes—especially in regards to the various women in his life.
But the overall, super-charged ambience that surges though the pages of the book—the layering of different historical times, the melting and transforming of identities, the slow entropy of heroic, masculine orientation—is what Martel catches to perfection in her dazzling weave of images and sounds, musical selections from different periods, gestures and colors (even as the final credits roll, the background colors cannot stop themselves mutating).
While much of what Martel elaborates in Zama can be more or less traced to specific incidents, preoccupations, and reflections contained in the novel, I suspect that it is an almost casual, throwaway line of Di Benedetto’s that inspired her most profoundly. Zama describes one of his exchanges with Luciana thus: “I had the disagreeable impression that she was forgetting herself and speaking to me as if I were a woman.” Martel has remarked in interviews that the arduous, eternal waiting that Zama undergoes aligns him with the common life-experience of many women. The story of learning to live without hope—of possibly escaping the fate of being a victim of expectation—is one she saw reflected in a suitably “feminized” imagining of Don Diego de Zama.