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Dashed Hopes: Spiritual Decay In Lucrecia Martel’s Zama
Brian Raven Ehrenpreis , May 4th, 2018 09:44

In the latest film from The Headless Woman director, Lucrecia Martel, Brian Raven Ehrenpreis nominates one of the best films of the year

A masterwork of spiritual and moral decay, Lucrecia Martel’s Zama is an incredible film and a remarkable work of literary adaptation. Based on the classic Argentine novel of the same name by Antonio Di Benedetto, Martel’s Zama manages not only to adapt the book, but also to comment on and expand its influence in ways that feel revolutionary.

Zama is the story of a pathetic functionary of the Spanish crown named Don Diego de Zama who is marooned on an overseas posting in the provincial backwater of Asunción in Paraguay, far from his wife, his child and his beloved Spain. Zama is the corregidor (colonial administrator) of Asunción, second in command only to the governor, and though this title would seem to confer legitimacy, the colonial bureaucracy of Asunción is almost nonexistent, consisting mostly of a handful of Spaniards sweating profusely in tiny rooms while wearing ridiculous powdered wigs.

Zama is a pathetic figure, and rightly so for the cinematic synecdoche of colonial occupation. With little to do in Asunción except scheme his way to Europe through a job transfer, Zama is gradually devoured by his various lusts, prides, and petty jealousies – teetering ever on the edge of an abyss of pure howling despair. Lucrecia Martel is the perfect director to channel Zama’s slow motion meltdown because she is a master of inducing feelings of disorientation and displacement in her viewers (as evidenced in her film of bourgeois guilt The Headless Woman).

Much of the appeal of Di Benedetto’s novel is its razor sharp first person prose, as he puts the reader directly inside Zama’s head with all of its wounded pride and bitter jealousy laid bare from moment to moment, written with – as Roberto Bolano notes in his short story Sensini – “the steady pulse of a neurosurgeon.” Information in Di Benedetto’s novel is delimited by the range of Zama’s interior monologue and we are privy to each slight shift in his moods or thoughts. We learn about the world only from what he tells us and we experience it only through the limited range of his emotionally stunted sensorium.

Martel manages a similar effect in her film, but in a manner that only she could accomplish, and that could only exist in a cinematic medium. Zama is a strong argument for what the cinema can do to explore psychic space versus what a novel can do. Martel’s use of framing is extraordinary, as is her use of sound. Each sound and each shot are impossibly precise and heightened for maximum affect. Characters walk in and out of her decentered compositions and we often hear sounds from off screen. Martel is such a master of sound and image that she often manages to render both the interior psychology and the exterior perception of her subjects simultaneously.

How Martel accomplishes the feat of making a film that can be both so exterior to her main character that it can comment on him, as well as so interior to him that it often feels like we are living inside his own hallucination is where the true artistry of the film resides. The magic of Martel’s adaptation is that she captures the precise spirit of the novel in a completely different way. It’s like she is playing the same song as Di Benedetto, but in an entirely different key. While many of the events and characters of the novel remain the same, her Zama is almost a personal reconsideration of the source material. It feels less like a straight reflection of the novel and more like a refraction of it.

Tone whipsaws wildly in Zama, often within the same scene. Take for example a scene at the beginning of the film where Zama is on a beach hiding in a bit of shrubbery, playing peeping tom as a party of nude women enjoy a mud bath. When he is spotted and chased off the beach by one of the women, the sight of this sweaty overly dressed aristo fleeing the scene of the crime is extremely comical. Our laughter stops abruptly when his pursuer catches up with him and he delivers a flurry of brutal blows to her face.

In another scene, Zama is called to the shore to meet a foreign trader. He discusses business with him, exchanging banalities about his relationship with the treasury minister until he suddenly seems to stumble into a waking hallucination. The trader’s son enters the frame, borne aloft on the back of a slave. His head floating in and out of the frame, he addresses Zama with a wisdom beyond the ken of his few years. He tells Zama that he is “a god that was born old and cannot die,” and remarks that Zama’s “loneliness is atrocious.” He relays a parable about a type of fish that must spend its entire miserable existence swimming frantically against cross currents that are endlessly working to beach it upon the shore. As he speaks, electronic tones pop on the soundtrack and the viewer slowly notices that the child’s words no longer synch with the movement of his lips. We’ve entered into the domain of madness.

Lucrecia Martel was originally working on a science fiction film before she started adapting Zama for the screen and has mentioned in interviews that she sought the freedom to explore the past as if it were the future, with an ability to fabricate – free from the prison of historical fidelity.

In Di Benedetto’s novel, Zama himself voices a similarly generative view of the past: “I saw the past as a shapeless, visceral mass, yet still somehow perfectible. It had its noble elements but among them I couldn’t help but recognize something – the main thing – that was viscous, unpleasant, and elusive to the grasp, like the intestines of a freshly disemboweled animal. “

This is in essence how Martel approaches her material as well. She is little interested in the ‘noble elements’ of the past – the recognizable signposts of period psychology and historical finality. What she is interested in are the viscous parts of history, the parts that are elusive to the grasp, the parts that can still be molded to mean something more: the parts that are still somehow perfectible, indicative of a (re)imaginative potentiality.

Martel’s Zama is a path-breaking work of speculative history in its conceptualisation of a past that feels unlike anything that actually could have occurred. As Di Benedetto’s English translator Esther Allen brilliantly points out, the desire to rethink the very idea of creating a work of ‘historical fiction’ was something Di Benedetto was also grappling with in his novel: “In Di Benedetto’s late-eighteenth-century Latin America, the Catholic Church has little sway and there’s almost no trace of gunpowder or firearms; the male characters wield sharp blades, but only once does an elderly gentleman brandish a useless old pistol.”

If Martel’s film feels oneiric and ungrounded at times, a large part of that can be traced back to the dim view of historicity she shares with Di Benedetto, and if her Zama can feel like a dream or a nightmare of history, maybe that’s because its based on one.

In many ways Zama is a film about being trapped, both by circumstance and by our own moral and psychological limitations. It is also an indictment of how the colonial project inevitably eats away at the soul (and sanity) of everyone involved – forcing the colonizer to sink deeper and deeper into the mire as their hopes suffocate beneath the absurd weight of their ideology. We watch as Zama is consumed by what he feels life owes him by his status as a Spaniard and a colonial functionary. As he struggles with the unbearable weight of the dissonance between his lofty self-image and his wretched actuality, he begins to crack. As he is turned down time after time, rebuffed, dishonored, and cast down in his personal and professional affairs he becomes increasingly forlorn and soul sick.

Zama only has one true moment of self-realization in the film, and it comes when he is forced at knifepoint to offer the one piece of wisdom that he has truly earned. He has the option of lying to his assailants, of telling them what they want to hear, but he refuses, even though he knows it will mean certain death. “I do for you what nobody did for me,” he tells them, “I say no to your hopes.”

Di Benedetto’s novel is dedicated “to the victims of expectation," those who expected something more from life than just suffering. It is written for those many who were martyred namelessly and unheroically, those who were broken upon the rocks of reality’s shoreline. Much like the fish from the parable relayed to Zama in Martel’s incredible film, it is a work dedicated to those who find themselves unable to continue struggling against life’s unceasingly cruel currents. Zama poses the question of whether a life without hope is worth living at all. It is a film of entropic disorder and decline, a cinematic slide into the total dissolution of the self. It is also undoubtedly one of the best films that will be released this year.

Zama is at the BFI Southbank from the 25 May 2018