Dir. Lucrecia Martel
Argentine director Lucrecia Martel made a significant name for herself as a maker of intimate, often claustrophobic, studies of character and atmosphere in her native Salta region. Her first three films all made the cramped social and cultural environments of the (upper) middle-class family as a form of pressure cooker, to study their mores and means under the intensity of a dire moment or incident.
What Martel made more important in this loose trilogy was far less what was on screen, but what was not – the ellipsis of both her camera and the characters illustrating what they did and did not acknowledge. Some eight years from her last film, the critically acclaimed “The Headless Woman”, Martel has turned her cinematic myopia away from suburban bourgeoisie, to delve back in time to the late 18th century. Has her palette, and lens, expanded on this journey? Yes and no.
Environment has always been important to Martel’s cinema (any film calling itself The Swamp cannot help but call attention to it), and in this instance she broadens to a few wide shots of the tiny outpost on the shores of an Argentine river. We hear this all pervading environment before we see it – a device Martel returns to time and again here – with the lap of the river waters and the symphony of insects, trees, birds and natives. The shot fades up on the eponymous hero, Diego de Zama, a minor official of the Spanish Empire. He stands in profile, a proud figure in striking attire, staring out to the watery horizon, as oblivious to the frolicking naked natives around him as they are of him. This one shot telegraphs much of the mood and content of the proceeding 2 hours: the division between colonist and native, the dominance of the environment on the humans and their differing approaches to it (conquering vs inhabiting), and Zama, on the edge of the land, of the empire, of the (in his view) civilised world, gazing endlessly at the horizon, looking for something that will, inevitably, never be seen or arrive.
Zama is stationed at the far reaches of the Spanish Empire and longs for the letter from Europe to confirm his transfer back to his home, his wife and family, to the culture he knows and feels he belongs to. While being an official, he is forever a victim to this system, always struggling to get his case heard by the Governor, a venal and corrupt Spaniard who holds court with gambling friends and taunts the frustrated Zama with his impotence. For it is not just social and political frustration hamstringing him – we see him early on being a voyeur on some women bathing in the river, and his entreaties to a blue-blooded temptress who holds court like a New World Marie Antoinette, oblivious to her position if not her effect on men, by her fondness for brandy. At the local brothel, Zama looks on not with disdain, but fear – he says he does not go with native women – a statement found to be untrue when he later reveals he has an illegitimate child with a native woman. Like in all things, Zama is frustrated, overlooked, forgotten. He is a functionary without function, a European without Europe, a man without manhood.
This duplicitous attitude toward native women is part of the colonial politic that is subtly explored here. Natives are naked or in rags, Spaniards in European finery; a personal assistant is mute and has to buy her right to marry (though her muteness is used to cast doubt on her power to do so), a black slave is a messenger for the Spaniards, in a loin cloth and dirty jacket.
Hanging over this perpetual world of unfulfilled waiting is a spectre, of a famed robber baron called Vicuna, rumoured to have been killed, then to be alive and murdering and raping. Years later, in an effort to gain some sense of motion in this swamp-like existence, Zama forms a hunting party to capture Vicuna. This act of action meant to prove his manhood to his peers, and to the all important but eternally distant and unseeing King. It is during this last third of the film that one thinks of other such doomed treks upriver in unfriendly jungle, particularly Herzog’s “Aguirre, Wrath of God“. And it is here that some of the surreal, magic realist, elements hinted at earlier come to the fore, as Zama’s mind disintegrates. Indians dyed head to foot in red paint, warriors in animal masks appearing as if from nowhere and, most hauntingly, an entire tribe that moves only at night, blinded by Spanish forces years before, feeling their way past the Spaniards camp. Spoiler: when it is revealed that the villainous Vicuna is actually one of their hunting party, the folly and self destructive nature of the colonial project is laid bare. When one is hunting only oneself, there is only emptiness and the horror at that emptiness to be found.