“White guys go crazy in the South American jungle” is a well-worn genre at this point. From Werner Herzog’s one-two of Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo, to more modern spins Embrace of the Serpent and The Lost City of Z, the sweltering heat, deteriorating minds, and battles with nature have proven too strong a lure for filmmakers to resist. Now it’s the turn of Lucrecia Martel, the Argentinian auteur, making a return to cinemas after a nine-year hiatus with Zama, a film that is haunting, baffling, and frustrating in equal measure.
Based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto, Zama takes place in 17th century Argentina, as Spanish magistrate Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) desperately waits for a transfer from his rural posting back to the city of Lerma, where his wife and children are. It’s a request that is perpetually delayed, leaving Diego in a wretched state of purgatory and wreaking havoc on his mental health.
This decline is made horrendously tangible by vicious sound design: discordant music drowned out by constant distressing noises happening just off-screen. Injured dogs whine, babies scream, and a captured slave makes inhuman whimpers of pain and fear – these events far more powerful for their not being shown. Diego is plagued by auditory hallucinations, and with lines repeated and played over one another, it becomes hard to tell where his psychoses end and reality begins. On a technical level, Zama is marvellous, but other than that, it doesn’t do enough to stand out in its field.
Plotless descents into madness are all well and good, but Zama lacks the driven charm of Lost City of Z or the magisterial mystery of Embrace of the Serpent, and its treatment of its native characters is a backward step from those two films.
CAST: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujín
DIRECTOR: Lucrecia Martel
WRITERS: Lucrecia Martel, Antonio di Benedetto (novel)
SYNOPSIS: Based on the novel by Antonio di Benedetto written in 1956, about Don Diego de Zama, a Spanish officer of the seventeenth century settled in Asunción, who awaits his transfer to Buenos Aires.