“What is dead may never die.”
The long-awaited latest film from Argentine director Lucrecia Martel (The Headless Woman, La Ciénega) opens this week at the Northwest Film Forum. It’s set sometime in the late 18th Century, in an unnamed Spanish colony in South America. Daniel Giménez Cacho plays Diego de Zama, an American-born magistrate who very much wants to get away, back to his family (from whom he hasn’t heard, as the film begins, in 14 months), or transferred out of the ramshackle outpost he’s assigned to and into something resembling a city. Zama though will be frustrated at every turn, and the film is a chronicle of his long, slow disintegration as he is ignored, confounded, ridiculed and betrayed by his fellow colonists and swallowed up whole by the flora, fauna, and pestilence of the land he’s invaded and so disdains. Early in the film, Zama is told by a child suffering from cholera that he is a god, born old but fated to never die. His progress, such as it is, recalls other descents into the wilderness, Jim Jarmusch’s Dead Man, Joesph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja, and so on, with the notable exception that for the majority of the film, Zama actually doesn’t journey anywhere, at least not spatially.
Based on a novel by Antonio di Benedetto, which I own but have not read, Zama is a slippery film: half allegory, half deadpan comedy, half realist fever dream. Giménez Cacho drifts through the film to the sounds of mid-century Brazilian guitar duo Los Indios Tabajaras (whose “Always In My Heart” you can also hear in Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild, a very different kind of film about a very different kind of jungle, that nonetheless shares Zama’s sense of aimless alienation). His Zama never seems to understand what is happening to him or why, he’s only apparently motivated by the desire to leave, or, alternately, the lust for women (only to be satisfied, if at all, off-screen). He is a magistrate, but from what we see not a very good one. He attempts to romance a fellow official’s wife, but is endlessly rebuffed. He tries to defend the young girls at his inn from a thief who may not have been uninvited. Time passes by while his entreaties to the governor for a transfer are endlessly delayed. Martel gives us no real markers for the passage of time, outside of Giménez Cacho’s physical deterioration. His physical state matches that of his surroundings: out of favor with the government he is evicted, and holed up in a hovel (that may be haunted) he contracts a fever. Or maybe he’s had it all along, or maybe he hasn’t ever really been there: he seems to have an extraordinary talent for not being noticed—even the servants can’t seem to remember his name.
Eventually, Zama makes it out of town, but not in the direction he’d hoped to be going. He joins a party searching for the notorious fugitive Vicuña Porto, a man held responsible for pretty much every crime in the area, fictional or not. The name has followed Zama from the beginning, not unlike the llama that stalks behind him during a meeting with the governor, the sounds and images of wildlife ever-present, even in the heart of the colonial community. On their journey, the men, of course, run afoul of the native population, who act mysteriously (one group wears masks, the other paints themselves orange and forcibly paint the Spaniards as well), but not with any kind of special hostility. Throughout the film, the natives, free and enslaved, linger in the background, as workers and servants, eying the colonists but rarely interacting with them. They are, like the environment itself, the force of otherness that torments Zama just as much as the other colonists. There’s no escape into nature for him, nor to the city. No chance for assimilation, either among the Spanish, or among the natives. He is doomed to in-betweenness: neither European nor America, urban or rural, civilized or wild, alive or dead.