Impotence and Colonialism
Tall and lean, fond of his powdered wig and many-sided hats, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is tall and thin and comes across as a man of power and importance and he dresses the part with a powdered wig and fancy hats. However, we understand that his is not who he seems to be. He is a full-blooded Spaniard, and an assistant magistrate on a long administrative posting in Asunción, Paraguay. He serves the king of a colonial power he’s never set foot in. In reality, he is a functionary who serves no function, he files the occasional incident report and spends most of the film in thought or waiting. We see him for the first time as he looks out on open water and trying to look important but then he understands that no one is even looking his way.
Zama’s personality is as confused as his identity; he straddles multiple nations without quite belonging to any of them. He is both an embodiment and a critique of colonialism and the slavery and racism. He’s also an unlucky fool. All that he really wants is to be transferred to bigger, whiter, more cosmopolitan environs, but his co-workers constantly outmaneuver him.
We can also see this film as a comedy that is built on the minor workplace humiliations of a pencil pusher in the 1790s. Zama requests a transfer recommendation, and his mercurial boss changes the subject; Zama is directed to censure his younger co-worker (Juan Minujin), who’s subsequently promoted and begins sleeping with the only woman he is interested in (Lola Dueñas). Zama has a strong sense of dislocation but Zama can sense a happy future for himself. The film uses image and sound to posit Zama’s revolt as an inevitability without ever speaking a word about it.
Zama is a company man that is somewhat oblivious to the maneuvering in his midst and never figures out how to behave. If he learns anything over the course of this film, it’s that concepts as foundational as identity and possession can be illusory: Zama’s furniture belongs to the Spanish crown, and his ostensible subjects reject or ignore his every demand.
The 1956 novel Zama by Antonio di Benedetto is the basis for this film about a man driven by the corrupt system to insanity. Zama cannot get a transfer to a more desirable location such as Lerma where his wife and child reside. Beyond the settlement where he is located is the jungle and primitive masked warriors and a fabled notorious brigand named Vicuna (Matheus Nachtergaele). Zama seems just as much lost in an hallucination as living a full life in the unpleasant colony. There is this constant menace, malaria, intense heat, settlers who go crazy and many officials of the crown who come and go. The setting is a place where no one is stable nor can be trusted.
There are some wonderful scenes. Zama is called to meet the Governor inside his ornate office where he is informed that once again his request for a transfer is rejected. He’s also informed that a fellow functionary (Juan Minujin) he despises has been sent to Lerma. He’s further humiliated when a llama clings to him, making him feel like one of the animals. This humiliation takes him out of character to volunteer to join the soldiers searching in the jungle for the dangerous bandit. It is through Zama’s mental breakdown that director Lucrecia Martel brilliantly gives us a rebuke of colonialism.