Zama is the latest film of festival-darling Lucrecia Martel (direction and screenplay). This Argentine film is officially billed as an Argentine-Brazilian-Spanish co-production, but in fact nearly a dozen countries can claim to have contributed to this film in one way or another. Not to mention the many heavy-weights who have lent their name as producers to support the project (including Pedro Almodovar, Gael García Bernal, Danny Glover, and Diego Luna). All of which, unfortunately, was a huge waste of effort and money, in my opinion.
Sure, the literati will tell you otherwise. Zama has mind-bogglingly high scores on aggregate sites. Pablo O. Scholz shamelessly calls it a “captivating experience” (it is not), while María Fernanda Mugica pre-emptively reaches for the ultimate cheap defence by claiming that Zama is a “work of art that requires an attentive, patient and open viewer”. That is always a good one, isn’t it. If the film sucks, it must be the audience’s fault and not the fault of the film. I am sure people like Scholz and Mugica also called the emperor’s new clothes “the last word in haute couture“.
Based on a 1956 novel by Argentine author Antonio di Benedetto, Zama features a mid-level Spanish bureaucrat (Diego de Zama) who, in the late 18th century, fulfills an administrative role in a remote, tropical South American province (it is Paraquay, in the novel, I am not sure it is ever strictly defined in the film). The remoteness means that de Zama and his colleagues are all but forgotten in Madrid, with communication being extremely sparse and their wages being unpaid for the past 29 months.
De Zama is not the nicest or most likeable of men, but compared with most of the other officials he is rather straightforward and honest. Forgotten by Madrid, and used and outmanoeuvred by his local superiors, he is slowly losing all hope of ever being able to leave his post and see his family again. Other contributing factors to de Zama’s decline include the incessant tropical heat (including diseases and insects, etc.), the general lack of civilisation’s comforts and the lack of meaningful contact with the outside world, as well as a tense relationship with various native tribes.
But these other factors seem secondary. At the heart lies de Zama’s entrapment in his forgotten post and the fact that his fellow administrators, who are all far more ruthless and corrupt than him, use and deceive him. The precise tone and nature of these relationships is one thing that I wish had been handled differently here. This film basically tries to create an atmosphere somewhere between Kafka and Heart of Darkness. But the whole satire would have worked better if the situation had been more absurd, and less malign; i. e., if de Zama would have been the victim of bureaucracy and incompetence rather than corruption and malice. Maybe this latter tone was already set in the novel and is not really the film’s fault, but it is just one element that could have been handled better.
Still, the faint satirical vibe surrounding de Zama’s desperate situation is about the only thing that works in this film, at least initially. Contributing to this success is the extraordinary achievement of the actors (assembled by casting directors Natalia Smirnoff and Verónica Souto), first and foremost Daniel Giménez Cacho in the title role. The rest of the cast (which includes Rafael Spregelburd) are very good as well, but they all have roles that are far smaller and less prominent.
The other thing this film has going for it is the beautiful landscape that appears now and again. But although these landscape elements are (like other parts of the film) beautifully shot, they are often narrow in frame and have a deliberately artificial vibe to them. The whole film is played and shot like a theatrical piece. That is, as I said, certainly a deliberate artistic decision, but there are other things that feed into it. It seems that the production had barely any convincingly period-looking buildings to work with, and so most of the scenes are taking place in confined spaces indoors (possibly sound-stage sets).
With its theatrical approach Zama reminded me a lot of the historic wilderness drama Escape from Patagonia, and although the latter was at times too didactic it at least had a real story to tell and some character growth to hint at. Zama, on the other hand, never tells a story. It describes a static situation trough various scenes and stages. And that might have worked fine if it hand been a film of 75 or 80 minutes in length. But at a sprawling 115 minutes, Zama is an excruciating watch. At the half-way mark at the latest, I struggled to avoid falling asleep. The only thing that kept me awake was the steadily rising tide of anger I was beginning to feel towards this film. Not only does it not tell a story (which, as I said, could be justified in a shorter piece), it is also incoherent as it throws in a multitude of themes and characters never heard from again and as it does take the (entirely unnecessary) artistic decision to blur things to such a degree that you feel chronology is not necessarily a thing here. So the whole affair meanders aimlessly and incoherently about until it completely falls apart in its final act which in its tone and content is an ill fit for the film. At this point, all the satirical elements are thrown out of the window and all that is left is despair and madness.
I know that I have thrown some criticism at Escape from Patagonia, because it feels a bit unfinished. But it is far more entertaining and rewarding to watch than Zama, while exploring similar themes, and with its running time of only 80 minutes it at least does not test your patience. Most importantly, however, the use of landscape in Escape from Patagonia is far superior, even though Zama might have the better cinematography.
It angers me that so much effort and money was wasted on the unwatchable mess that is Zama, while far superior projects like Interludio and El Pampero probably struggle to raise even a few measly dollars in funding. Not to mention that both of these films would have been far more deserving Oscar submissions than Zama, which was inexplicably chosen by Argentina as its 2017 candidate.
I cannot rate Zama higher than 2.5 out of 10; it would deserve less, but I have to award at least some points for the acting efforts as well as the cinematography and the few satirical elements. My recommendation is that you avoid Zama. The only people who might get some enjoyment out of it are people who like some of the stuff Peter Greenaway cobbles together.