SHOULD I SEE IT?
If you are tired of conventional cinema, Zama is waiting for you to kindly take your seat.
Daniel Giménez Cacho’s performance is a tour de force, holding together a movie that unravels right along the mentality of its main subject.
Although it failed to land an Oscar nomination, Zama was Argentina’s selection to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film award last year.
Beyond those who visit the arthouse and enjoy international cinema, I cannot think of anyone I would recommend Zama to. That’s not an indictment on it being bad, it just is a bit of a hard nut to crack for mainstream audiences.
May try the patience of those willing to buy-in and watch it.
Based on a book, which has a cult following, Zama may find a similar audience in its theatrical run. However, the movie is fighting an uphill battle against the source material.
Some critics have already gone on record and called Zama (in April 2018, no less), the best movie of the year. Certainly, Lucrecia Martel’s fourth feature film, and first since 2008, is a movie that a majority of critics have and will swoon over. Receiving its theatrical release in North America, after Argentina selected it for Oscar consideration for the Foreign Language Film category in 2017, Zama certainly is unlike any movie I have personally seen this year. And beyond critics and cinephiles, I admittedly struggle to think how this movie will find anything resembling an audience outside of those circles.
Zama is a challenge, though not an unassailable one. Adapted from a 1956 Spanish-language novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, we find ourselves in 18th century South America, watching a magistrate, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), emotionally unraveling as he waits for a transfer to Buenos Aires, out of what would eventually become known as Paraguay.
In our opening moments, we see an impressively costumed and put together Zama, statuesque almost, looking out over the rolling waters on a beach. Within a few minutes, he will attempt to spy on a group of naked women cooling off with a mud bath. Caught, he will be called a “Voyeur” and chased, until he subdues one of the women in pursuit and slaps her a couple of times.
Jarring moments, like that one, routinely occur in Martel’s nearly two-hour walkabout. Unflappable, she hunkers down and has some fun peeling back the layers of Zama’s inadequacies. He is easily swayed towards women, constantly made to look foolish in the presence of others, and as the movie goes along, his costuming becomes muddied, torn, and shabby. Much like his mind, Zama’s whole being and existence is coming apart literally at the seams.
None of this is steeped in truth, Zama is not a biopic or based on actual events. However, Martel’s adaption of Di Benedetto’s novel captures much of the internal combustion that Zama is enduring. He has left his wife and children in another part of the world. He is lost. He is somewhat trying to make his way back to them, but also is smitten with the hint of power and prestige he feels is just outside of his grasp. In short, Zama is a buffoon, and he is the only one who fails to realize that he is his own worst enemy.
Portrayed by Cacho, the veteran Mexican actor (Bad Education, the narrator from Y tú mama también), Zama becomes an almost sympathetic figure. He evolves from his doldrums and frequent stumbles, into discovering a villainous pursuit – the mysterious Vicuña Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele) – who could easily be a fearful criminal worth avoiding, or a Boogeyman of sorts, existing possibly as myth and/or legend.
Martel’s screenplay is its own unique little creation; not afraid to let scenes play out a little too long, or to build in awkward silences and pauses. Often, we get the sense that we are waiting for Zama to routinely catch up to the rest of us, itself a clever little delight to uncover.
While there are humorous asides in the film, Martel has not created a comedy. Much of Zama plays dramatic, but the humor here is parched, as dry and barren as one can get. Martel is rather smart with its unpredictable nature, even when it feels like very little of consequence is transpiring on screen.
As I settled in for my viewing of Zama, I noted 37 different production companies, financiers, and studios have their title cards or logos on screen before we even see the first frame. Truly, Martel summoned the forces and got tremendous buy-in from a wide and diverse path of international filmmakers and interested parties, among them Danny Glover and Pédro Almodovar.
At times, Zama can be a frustrating endeavor, with frayed ends never always coming together. Patience reaps rewards however, and Martel continually finds ways to keep us wondering just what the heck is happening here.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín, Nahuel Cano.
Director: Lucrecia Martel
Written by: Lucrecia Martel
Adapted from the novel “Zama” by Antonio Di Benedetto
Release Date: April 13, 2018