Zama (Lucrecia Martel, 2017)


“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.

The Lost City of Z (James Gray, 2016)


…a voice, as bad as Conscience, rang interminable changes
On one everlasting Whisper day and night repeated—so:
“Something hidden. Go and find it. Go and look behind the Ranges—
“Something lost behind the Ranges. Lost and waiting for you. Go!”

–Rudyard Kipling, “The Explorer”

And the women all were beautiful
And the men stood
straight and strong
They offered life in sacrifice
So that others could go on.

Hate was just a legend
And war was never known
The people worked together
And they lifted many stones.

They carried them
to the flatlands
And they died along the way
But they built up
with their bare hands
What we still can’t do today.

And I know she’s living there
And she loves me to this day
I still can’t remember when
Or how I lost my way.

He came dancing across the water
Cortez, Cortez
What a killer.

–Neil Young, “Cortez the Killer”

James Gray’s adaptation of the story of early 20th Century British explorer Percy Fawcett, based on a New Yorker article and subsequent book by David Grann, is as beguiling, beautiful and ultimately confounding as the Amazonian jungle in which it is largely set. Shot on actual film by the great Darius Khondji (Seven, My Blueberry Nights) the film has a granular opulence rarely seen in the Hollywood cinema today, lush details of both the rain forest wilderness and the rich dark warmth of the woods and leathers of English libraries that are overwhelmingly tactile and mesmerizingly immersive, which, combined with the film’s languorously fluvial pacing washes away all the gaps and inconsitencies and oddities in the screenplay, leaving only the impression of the grace and tragedy of the human impulse toward transcendence.

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