Mittwoch, 26. Dezember 2018

Zama

"They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realise that their life, the very essence of their character, their capabilities and their audacities, are only the expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence; the emotions and principles; every great and insignificant thought belongs not to the individual but to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and of its morals" – Joseph Conrad, "An Outpost of Progress"

Zama, Lucrecia Martel's remarkable period drama about the misadventures of a low-level judge in colonial Argentina, is a haunted film – haunted by both the shadowy presence of countless works of art that preceded it and, not unlike Warwick Thornton's stunningly radical Sweet Country (2017), a lurking feeling of repressed guilt.

Watching Martel's ethereal, deviously laconic adaptation of Antonio di Benedetto's eponymous 1956 novel is to see textual spectres at every corner – allusions the film does not seem to actively invoke. Most obviously, there is the sense of imperialist ennui, which has been a mainstay of European postcolonial art from Joseph Conrad all the way to Werner Herzog's Aguirre (1972): Zama's protagonist, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is stuck in a sleepy Argentinian backwater, where he is respected neither by the natives nor by his fellow colonisers. His only wish is to be called back to his native Spain, but the vast and abstract network of authority that rules over his deployment never deigns to indulge him.

There is something Sisyphean about Zama's existence – reinforced by the frequent repetition of mundane lines of dialogue – which gives the whole affair a distinctively absurdist tinge; a life spent waiting in vain for a better life, sporadically interrupted by pointless tasks and hopeless appeals to uncaring and ever-changing superiors, whose offices aren't even powerful enough to keep out the llamas. Remnants of Buñuel, specifically the sense of self-imposed stagnation encountered in The Exterminating Angel (1962) and Simon of the Desert (1965), are rattling around the film as well.

Hapless coloniser Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is waiting to be transferred to a better position.
© trigon-film
Finally, Martel's deft direction, coupled with DP Rui Poças' beautiful and precise tableaux of rooms, windows, and doorframes, brings to mind Diego Velázquez's painting Las Meninas with its complex web of sight lines, which philosopher Michel Foucault famously translated into indications of power relations. In Zama, as in Las Meninas, it matters who sees whom, who looks at whom, and who notices – or not – whether they are being looked at. And it's rarely the colonisers – and least of all Zama, in spite of all his posturing in the foreground of the frame – who come out on top in this game of political peekaboo.

Indeed, Martel, without diminishing the racist entitlement and cruel capriciousness of the Spanish invaders, portrays her titular character and most of his compatriots as being almost comically out of their depth. As time wears on, with no way of telling whether months or years have passed, their fashionably powdered wigs become increasingly dishevelled, their clothes ragged and dusty. The native population confounds them with customs and a language they do not understand, nor bother to learn; they unsettle each other with tales of a mysterious outlaw, who has either been executed or is waiting to strike at any moment. The third act, an aimless trek into the countryside, plays like a dark variation on Don Quixote, with a local tribe refusing to adhere to European notions of "savagery" standing in for the windmills, and Sancho Panza slowly dying of an infected insect sting.

In colonial Argentina, Zama and his compatriots are hopelessly out of their depth.
© trigon-film
As in the somewhat grimmer Sweet Country, the bottom line of Martel's brilliant film appears to be a thinly veiled challenge to the legitimacy of a state founded on colonialism. The historical injustice on which Argentina, and much of modern South America, is built is palpable in nearly every scene – be it the native people in the margins, the black slaves waiting on the white aristocrats in wary silence, or the moral doubts that creep into some of the colonisers' conversations here and there.

Even though its larger point is virtually unmissable, Zama is an extraordinarily subtle film that gains upon reflection and, presumably, revisiting. It is at once a serious deconstruction of colonialist attitudes and a wryly funny satire of the very notion of European supremacy – incorporated into an absurdist descent into madness and despair. In short, it's a treat.

★★★★★

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