Early in Lucrecia Martel’s historical drama “Zama“, there’s a portentous scene that sets the one for the rest of the film. In it, a man recalls the story of a species of fish that spends its entire life swimming to and fro against the tide of the water, forever remaining in one place. The significance of this anecdote isn’t immediately apparent. But as this story unfolds, it becomes a metaphor for the film itself, which follows a man who is actively going nowhere.
“Zama” stars Daniel Giménez Cacho in the titular role of Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish magistrate in 18th century Paraguay. As an officer in service of the king, his duties include filing critical reports on potentially inflammatory literature and settling land disputes between Spanish settlers and natives. Outside of work, however, his life is much less eventful. As the years go by, he longs for a transfer to a more agreeable post. But as he awaits the approval letter from the king, he begins to realize that his local superiors have no intention of relieving him with any urgency. And as he wallows in his misery many miles away from his family, he begins to succumb to a debilitating hopelessness.
That sense of despair is palpably felt throughout the film. Languidly paced with little by way of serious conflict, the atmosphere conveys a society with little hope for the future. As such, the script concerns itself with meditations on the past, namely the dark shadow of colonial rule. Indeed. both the dialogue and Martel’s evocative images illuminate the rape and violence that has plagued the land.
As a European man born into this warped South American society, Zama’s character study is therefore inextricably linked to its hellish legacy of slavery and abuse. And through his excellent performance, Daniel Giménez Cacho makes that burden abundantly clear. His labored physicality and solemn face perfectly channel that of a world-weary man.
“Zama” is undeniably a tough sit, but it is not without its enjoyable moments. Opposite Cacho, longtime Pedro Almodóvar collaborator Lola Dueñas makes a welcome appearance as the free-spirited wife of the Treasury minister. Her pointed observations deepen the film’s themes, notably when she indirectly blames society’s woes on men’s universal desire to possess other people and things. There is also some irony to her lament that this society affords few occasions for elegance. Indeed, despite the setting, the film still conveys an aura of European nobility through the detailed interior designs, costumes and the prevalent white wigs of the period.
But most of all, the film’s most enticing aspect is its cinematography, particularly in outdoor scenes where the vivid greens of the forest and the golden earth of the shorelines give the film an almost surreal, painterly quality. When the dramatic final act takes the plot outdoors, it makes you wish the rest of the story could have devised more opportunities to escape the stuffy atmosphere of the more domestic interactions. Indeed, the eye-catching ending is a potent reminder that while this overly somber screenplay may not be her best, Lucrecia Martel remains one of cinema’s best visual stylists.
“Zama” opens in select theaters April 13.