Zama (2017)

In Lucrecia Martel’s hallucinatory, dreamlike, absurdist Zama, Spanish colonialists take on South America and lose.

Corazón de la Oscuridad

by Alexa Dalby


CAUTION: Here be spoilers

As the film starts, an escaping prisoner gnomically describes how fish out of water, rejected by the sea, struggle to remain stranded on the shore. His captors are blind to the allusion to themselves.

Daniel Giménez Cacho is Don Diego de Zama, a functionary in a remote colonial posting in the eighteenth century, permanently awaiting a transfer that never comes back to the capital. Everything about the Spanish colonisers is unsuited to their environment – as in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, their unsuitable European clothes are unbearable in the sweltering heat, as are their ill-fitting periwigs, yet they persist in wearing them – and they are trying to impose equally unsuitable strictures on a continent and a people whose magical reality eludes them. Meanwhile, unremarked, all around them naked indigenous peoples get on with their lives and black slaves are treated as part of the furniture.

Zama is lonely and displaced and his rationale for being there at all is slowly crumbling as the years pass. He writes to his wife, has a child with an indigenous woman, flirts with a colleague’s wife (Lola Dueñas), and a fight with his assistant leads to the assistant getting the longed-for transfer instead of him. Successive governors are indifferent to his plight and a well-placed llama undercuts his pleas. A continuing thread is the threat posed by a legendary criminal Vicuña Porto, who may or may not really exist and eventually Zama joins a posse to track him down, which leads to strange, unreal experiences in wild places.

Based on Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel and shot in Paraguay, the film is a wonderfully mystical, elliptical satire on the failed pretensions of colonialism with none so blind as the colonialists themselves who can’t see that they are the fish in the metaphor.

Zama has screened at numerous festivals including the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 25 May 2018 in the UK.

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