Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 03, 2017 4:59 am 
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A strange and inventive slow burner, long awaited and long delayed

Based on a 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, which in her country is a cult classic, this is Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel's first feature in nine years, since The Headless Woman (NYFF 2008), which had followed the much admired 2001 La Ciénaga and 2004 The Holy Girl. The story set in the late eighteenth century focuses on a petty official of the Spanish crown, Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), living in a remote outpost on the Paraguay river, endlessly awaiting transfer to Buenos Aires that never comes. "While not much happens (star Daniel Giménez Cacho largely wanders around, perplexed, under a three-cornered hat), when it finally does, it’s violently unsettling. This hallucinatory work vaguely suggests a stoned, swampy relative of 1970s Werner Herzog, but invents its own cinematic language," wrote Jonathan Romney in the Guardian from Venice when the film debuted. And that's an understatement. The ending is apocalyptic and deeply ironic, a sort of "don't ever go to live where there are natives" message. The film is slow going much of the way, but nobody can complain it lacks drama at the end. It's jazzed up with periodic popular music that reminded me of Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together.

Zama is full of enigmatic and inconclusive scenes and colorful, made-up period details and it revels in exoticism; the cinematography is handsome, the color gorgeous. Martel has explained that since the novel source supplies little physical detail, she immersed herself in a lengthy book by an eighteenth-century writer, but would up making much of the detail up. Much is made of wigs, and men are constantly seen taking them off and putting them back on. A governor has red painted nails and wears, supposedly, the ears of an executed wrongdoer on strings around his neck; a tall black slave wears a long blue dress coat and a loin cloth. In the opening scene, richly conveying a sense of strangeness, Zama lies in the bushes watching a group of naked white women by the water covered with mud who yell "voyeur" at him. When he beats a retreat one runs up and grabs his leg. He smacks her away, very hard This is intended to convey that he is not a nice man. Though he's a victim, it's not certain he doesn't deserve his fate. He has a wife, and kids who are growing up without him, in Buenos Aires, but maybe they're better off without him. Maybe colonialism and macho sexism deserve purgatorial sufferings.

An English translation of the book by Di Benedetto was recently published by The New York Review of Books, and there is a 5,000-word review of it by J.M Coetzee in the 19 Jan. 2017 issue of the magazine. From Coetzee's summary I learned details that weren't clear in the film, notably why Zama has been demoted and is always longing for the earlier days when he was a corregidor addressed as "Doctor" with his own district to run. It's because Spain has instituted a new, tighter and more centralized administrative system requiring that officials be Spanish-born, and Zama is an americano, born in the New World, so he is now doomed to be forever second in command.

A long conversation between Zama and a bewigged, dressed up and luridly made up lady focuses on their longing to be somewhere European, where people don't sweat all the time. This is a flirtation, but a useless one. He has a native woman and squalling child. Now he refuses to go to a brothel because he'll only have sex with a white woman; or at least so he says. His dream of a love life is unfulfilled like his dream of escape to a more civilized place - in the film, anyway.

Martel's adaptation of the book leaves out sexual details, while adding attractive visuals like a superb palm-strewn swampland and llamas around the corner in doorways. The novel is a first-person narrative, which has been dropped. In the Q&A Martel said everything that happens and all the dialogue is the first person narration of the film. But despite an impressive mise-en-scène and editing that flows with confidence, the self-conscious complexity of the central character has been subsumed into something more stoical and stolid, just as narrative action has to some extent been subsumed into exotic scene-staging in which the somewhat tricky chronology becomes only harder to follow.

At one point clearly the action jumps forward to some years later when Zama is bearded and older looking. Zama is transferred to a worse outpost, but some of the same people are sent to be with him. He has a widow as a lover now, who lives apart, and has born him a sickly son. Much is made of a young man, Manuel Fernández (Nahuel Cano) who's writing a book on, as it were, company time, and the gobernador wants Zama to read the book, and get rid of Manuel Fernández, but he's uncooperative. Much is made, in Di Benedetto's book (according to Coetzee) of the riddle of a woman, or two women, in a house where Zama takes up residence because he's low on money. But, Coetzee reports, the novel, though long in gestation (which fits with Lucrecia Martel's experience with this film), was hastily written, and this means details are confusing, especially in the third part.

It would remiss not to mention the story's mysterious, recurrent villain, Vicuã Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele), Zama's nemesis, who's mentioned early on but never appears in person - or appears to - until the final scenes. He's not just Zama's nemesis but "a bandit of mythical status—no one is even sure what he looks like—on whom all the colony’s woes are blamed." His story is somewhat simplified from the novel's version, but he's constantly referred to, and enters, in one incarnation, for a decisive encounter with Zama and others sent to combat him, at the end.

Zama is an exotic, delicious to look at, slow-moving but fast-ending film that isn't fully satisfying the first time and might require repeated viewings, preferably in combination with study of Di Benedetto's novel, now finally available to Anglophone readers and clearly requiring careful study in its own right. It's not certain that Zama the film can ever be fully satisfying, but one can revel in its imagery and ponder its meanings.

Zama, 115 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2017 and is Argentina's Best Foreign Oscar entry. A half dozen international festivals including Toronto, Haifa, London, Busan and the New York Film Festival, as part of which it was screened for this review in Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center 2 Oct. 2017 followed by a Q&A with Martel and NYFF programmer Dennis Lim.


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