Zama is a compelling portrait of one man's colonial purgatory: EW review
The crimes of European colonization were countless, but imperialism is such a messed-up way of interacting with other humans that it can also take a toll on the souls of the colonizers themselves. This is apparent in Lucrecia Martel’s new film Zama, which focuses on a man who slowly watches his entire life eaten up by a colonial assignment that comes to resemble a jail sentence.
As suggested by the title, Zama is the story of one man: Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), who has been assigned to be the Spanish Empire’s magistrate in its 18th-century Paraguayan colony. Though his job is to handle legal disputes among the colony’s inhabitants, Zama prefers to spend most of his time staring out at sea, yearning for escape. When we first meet him, he still believes such an escape is possible. All Zama wants is to be reassigned elsewhere, to be a Spanish functionary in a city closer to his home and family. Good relations with the visiting wife of an important judge give Zama hope of this reassignment. But when a dispute with a subordinate about treatment of natives boils over into a fist fight — Zama wants to kill and enslave a score of them as payment for damage done to Spanish colonizers, and the other man refuses to go along with it — Zama finds himself stuck in Paraguay for even longer.
Zama’s life unfolds over the rest of the film. Years can pass between scenes, with little notification of the time change aside from the increasingly haunted look in Cacho’s eyes. Zama has to deal with a succession of Spanish governors, each of whom seems less likely to grant his reassignment. This drives Zama to make increasingly desperate moves (such as joining a hunting party for an infamous local bandit) in the hopes of finally earning a slice of the king’s largesse. All the while, the years of his life just keep ticking away.
The promise of colonialism is the divide between haves and have-nots, but Zama finds himself caught in the middle. He was born in South America but serves the Spanish Empire, a man who can’t return home but feels no connection to the place where he actually spends decades. Not much action occurs in Zama (though some blood is spilled, and several limbs are severed, by the end). Instead, the drama is always in Cacho’s face, which Martel keeps front and center throughout the film. Surrounded by the lush South American landscape, Zama struggles wordlessly to piece together the puzzle of his own life. The film makes a compelling portrait of how job assignments can eventually become jail sentences, and how years can drift into each other with little care for unfulfilled dreams. As it goes, Zama ponders the unanswerable question of what kind of life, exactly, is worth living. B