A Miserable Miracle




EARLY IN Lucrecia Martel’s new film, Zama, we are introduced to a wretched and sickly man, a prisoner of the Spanish colonial government at Asunción. The prisoner’s sentence is abruptly waived. Upon learning of his freedom, he falls to the ground, suffers a troubling bronchial spasm, and begins to describe a fish. As the guitars of Los Indios Tabajaras lull us along, we learn that this fish lives in constant battle with the river, his home — if he doesn’t keep moving, the river will toss him out onto the shore. So he swims frantically without getting anywhere, working crazily to stay in a home that rejects him.

The fish is a clear proxy for the film’s central figure, the frustrated servant of the Spanish crown, Don Diego de Zama. Some viewers may see themselves reflected in the prisoner’s allegory, too. Martel has made a difficult film, filled with arbitrary cruelty and plotted with cruel arbitrariness. (I am told that she introduced a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival by reassuring viewers that sleeping, even during the greatest films, is a completely acceptable response.) But if Zama seems to reject our attention, it also rewards it. Martel’s film is a deeply experiential meditation on colonialism, lust, and the Latin American landscape, seen through the eyes of a paranoid egoist descending into madness. Martel’s first film in nine years, Zama is an adaptation of a novel by the Argentine writer Antonio Di Benedetto, and in many ways it marks a major departure from the tones and themes of her earlier films. In other ways, though, it is a natural continuation of her preoccupation with the culture, the language, and the aesthetics of Argentina.

Around the turn of the millennium, Martel was part of a small group of independent filmmakers who quietly revolutionized Argentine cinema. The early films in this movement may not look particularly experimental — they tell everyday stories, and they tend to tell them slowly — but critical praise for La Ciénaga (2001), Martel’s debut feature, was anything but muted. The film won acclaim and awards in the festival circuit, and Martel was fêted as the “Argentinian Chekhov.” To understand the significance of the New Argentine Cinema (as this loosely defined movement became known), it’s helpful to look back at an earlier era.

Martel’s innovations emerged in the wake of an earlier, more obvious artistic awakening. In the 1980s, decades of social repression and political violence in Argentina gave way to a new era of democracy. Filmmakers (and artists of all stripes) were quick to take advantage of their new liberties, and a wave of new films spoke explicitly about the brutal realities of the preceding years. There was much to say: during the so-called Dirty War (1974–’83), the right-wing military government targeted leftists and Peronist guerillas, but they cast a wide net. Tens of thousands of Argentines — many students, union members, and journalists — were killed or “disappeared.”

After the fall of the military dictatorship, there was a huge public appetite for open commentary on the pains of the past; one is reminded of the popularity of gulag memoirs during the thaw of the Soviet Union. Films like The Official Story (dir. Luis Puenzo, 1985) and Night of the Pencils (dir. Héctor Olivera, 1986) dramatized the terrors of the junta, while documentaries like Las Madres (dir. Lourdes Portillo and Susana Muñoz, 1986) gave victims a platform. While these are often effective films, they are rarely subtle. They deal in damning allegories and caustic rebukes, and they shine a harsh light on the atrocities of state-sponsored terrorism.

By contrast, a younger generation of filmmakers sought to redefine their national cinema in quieter terms. This involved an impressive feat of aesthetic gymnastics: refocusing on Argentine culture with microscopic specificity, while at the same time consciously gesturing toward a global context. Bruno Stagnaro’s Birra, Pizza, Faso (1998), one of the opening salvos of the movement, embodies this dialectic. Employing the rough visual language of early Scorsese, Stagnaro nonetheless tells a distinctly Argentine story: if his fresh-faced street criminals are watching Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) in one scene, they are obsessing over local television actresses in the next. With this maneuver, an independent film about hoodlums on the streets of Buenos Aires asserts its place in the canon of world cinema.

With La Ciénaga, Martel performs a similarly delicate high-wire act. In the unforgettable opening shot of the film, a group of bathing suit–clad retirees patiently drag metal chairs across the stone tiles surrounding a dirty, leaf-filled swimming pool. With its striking sound design and choreographed formalism, the sequence recalls the beginning of Fellini’s 8 1/2 (1963). Furthermore, the intertwined dramas of the upper-class family and their hired help places La Ciénaga firmly in the lineage of the European upstairs-downstairs film, stretching back to Renoir’s The Rules of the Game (1939).

But the genealogy of La Ciénaga is convoluted; if Martel at times gestures outward, claiming some of the storied pedigree of European art-house cinema, she is clearly more interested in planting roots in her own backyard. By casting Graciela Borges as the central matriarch of a wealthy family in decline, Martel makes a clear nod to an earlier era of Argentine film. Borges was the leading lady in a number of famous films in the 1950s and ’60s. Made by auteurs like Leopoldo Torre Nilsson, these films tell stories of the midcentury bourgeoisie in a hip, starkly modern visual style. Though little discussed today, these were some of the first Argentine films to attract the attention of the international film community. La Ciénaga opens a dialogue with this first Argentine New Wave — a fraught conversation that traverses painful history. Martel’s is a troubled, introspective cinema, haunted by the past and suspicious of the present.

La Ciénaga was followed by The Holy Girl, in 2004, and The Headless Woman, in 2008. With this acclaimed trio of films, Martel demonstrated a masterful control of sound design and an uncanny skill at weaving gossamer webs of friendship, desire, and power. They made her the darling of the festival circuit and earned her a spot on the short list of major 21st-century Argentine artists. And then, for nine years, she was silent.

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Zama is Martel’s first literary adaptation, and her source material is a short novel by Antonio Di Benedetto that has long been overlooked, even in Latin America. Di Benedetto was born in the Argentine city of Mendoza on November 2, 1922 — the Day of the Dead. His literary career began early, and he published story collections and novels through the 1950s and ’60s; in 1975 he was awarded a prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship. Shortly after the military coup in 1976, he was jailed by the government. During the 18 months of his imprisonment he was tortured and endured four mock executions. A group of writers, including Heinrich Böll, Ernesto Sabato, and Jorge Luis Borges, successfully pressured the government for his release, and he left his country in exile.

Di Benedetto continued to write through the end of his life, in 1986. He published award-winning novels, short stories, and screenplays during a century when Latin American literature achieved international popularity. Yet he remained a figure on the outskirts. Only in recent years have his major works been published in English translation: Mundo Animal in 1997, Zama in 2016, Nest in the Bones in 2017. He has had some important readers over the years (among them Roberto Bolaño), but in the English literary press he is usually promoted as a “rediscovered” writer.

As Esther Allen explains in the preface to her translation of Zama, Di Benedetto viewed “magical realism” with skepticism. He preferred his native Mendoza to the cultural center of Buenos Aires, as the regionalism of his fiction evinces. That he frustrates our efforts to place him among his contemporaries could explain his belated recognition. Zama (1956), his first novel, is a strange hybrid: a well-researched historical narrative with all the qualities of a modernist parable. It is indebted to the literature of the fantastic, especially to Kafka, and has also been compared to The Stranger and to the novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Zama may not be realism, but there is little magic in this utterly bleak book; just paranoia, obsession, and shambling bureaucracy.

Zama is set during the final decade of the 18th century and is narrated by Don Diego de Zama, an administrator in the imperial Spanish government. Zama is a Criollo — born in the New World, but of Spanish blood. He has risen to a senior position, but his ascent through the ranks has stalled and he is isolated in an unimportant outpost of the Empire. He has little work to do and he lives in poverty — the ship bringing his wages never seems to come on time.

Di Benedetto renders Zama’s voice in taut, precise prose. There is a formality to the language that occasionally verges on stuffiness, but this is certainly not period-correct colonial Spanish. The tension between the modernity of the language and the rich historical detail of the setting is jarring, and it points us to a rupture at the core of Di Benedetto’s project. Zama is a frustrated bureaucrat dislocated in time, a Josef K. in the Pampas, suffering his existential conflicts over manioc soup and aguardiente. And yet, to say that Zama is a 20th-century man dropped into the 18th century would be too simple; that is a readily understandable conceit, a puzzle the reader could solve. The tension at the heart of Zama will not collapse so easily.

From the outset, Zama has two primary goals: to secure a promotion, and to seduce a woman. These goals are essentially in conflict. Zama wants a promotion so that he can be transferred to a city closer to his wife and children. He divides his time between working to unite his family and scheming to betray them. The novel charts his many prolonged and abject failures on both fronts, and ends with a disillusioned Zama embarking on a dangerous trek into the wild, in pursuit of an infamous criminal.

The reader of Zama is trapped in the head of a paranoid, cruel man. When the events of the novel defy narrative logic, when they seem incredible, we are left to guess whether this is because Zama is mad, or because the fictional world he inhabits doesn’t follow the rules of our own. It’s a familiar technique, the “unreliable narrator,” but Di Benedetto employs it in a unique way. In Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, the central events of the story change depending on whether we believe the narrator. In The Good Soldier, Ford Madox Ford presents a narrator who doesn’t understand the story he is telling. In the former example, the uncertainty heightens the suspense; in the latter, it provides dramatic irony. In the case of Zama, it really doesn’t matter much one way or the other whether we take the narrator at his word. The absurdities of the story are thematic — they reflect the absurdities of the world — and they retain their implications either way.

This is a technique that is easier to pull off in fiction than in film. An entire novel can take place inside a character’s head — many of the best do. But perspective functions differently in the cinema, where we can see the characters and the world they inhabit for ourselves. (There are exceptions to this, of course. Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void (2009) comes to mind as the gimmick that proves the rule.) Lucrecia Martel knew that adapting Zama for the screen would be difficult; she has suggested that it was this challenge that attracted her to the project: “I thought it’d be interesting to turn Zama’s paranoia inside out — to see the world through his eyes and find visual ways to transmit that state of mind.”

Martel encountered Di Benedetto’s novel on a boat ride up the Amazon, after a science fiction film she was set to direct fell through. In some ways, the director and the author are perfectly matched: both fascinated by the peculiarities of the Latin American interior, both obsessed with the concept of identity. In other ways, Zama is a sharp change of course for Martel. It is her first period piece, and her first film with a male lead. It is certainly her first film to contain a gruesome dismemberment scene. This is also Martel’s most ambitious project to date, and a prestigious group of industry figures came together to produce it, including Danny Glover, Pedro Almodóvar, and Gael García Bernal.

In Martel’s script, the novel is indeed inverted: paranoia, turned inside out, becomes conspiracy, and the fantastic comes to the fore. Zama is played with frazzled intensity by Daniel Giménez Cacho. He inhabits a world that refuses to conform to his wishes: women will not yield to him; men will not obey him; life sabotages him at every step. When Zama’s superior, the Gobernador, finally agrees to write a letter to the king recommending his promotion, a series of absurd obstacles delays him. First, a scribe must be found. But the scribe is caught writing a novel instead of fulfilling his government work, and the letter is put off until Zama can complete a full investigation of this negligence. When this is done and the Gobernador finally writes the letter, he casually observes that the whole exercise is futile: in these cases, the first letter never succeeds. Perhaps the second. This is governance via Zeno — no matter how much progress Zama makes, there is always one more hurdle to clear.

Eighteenth-century Asunción comes to vibrant life on the screen, dusty and buzzing with heat. But despite the costumes and the mise-en-scène, Martel seems uninterested in explaining the politics of colonialism. The landscape is richly depicted, but the topography is confusing; the camera stays on Zama, following him through dim, serpentine interiors and across verdant swampland. Amid the bustle of colonial life, Martel makes deft use of sound and sightlines to put the viewer in Zama’s head. Because Zama is so self-absorbed, seeing the events through his eyes can make them less decipherable. Martel gives us a formal representation of Zama’s narcissism: everything in the film revolves around him. Each shot, each utterance, is a reflection of his inner torment.

Zama is a senior administrator in the imperial government, but he shows no interest in dispatching his responsibilities. In one scene, a white family comes before him to file a formal claim of ownership over a tract of land. The land is currently in use by the native population, and the white family lives on it in poverty. If they are granted ownership, the natives will either be expelled or enslaved. As the father presents his case, Zama’s attention rests on a young woman in the group. His lustful gaze wanders over her body, and we see with him. A hypnotic descending tone fades in. (It is an auditory illusion, the Shepard tone, that gives the impression of falling infinitely — Martel has called it “Zama’s sound.”) When Zama summarily approves the request, without asking a single question or requesting any paperwork, a subordinate of his rebukes him for his negligence. The angry exchange that ensues escalates to violence. This scene is filled with information that seems integral to the narrative, but Zama is so overcome by desire that he virtually ignores it. And because we see with his eyes, we are encouraged to ignore it, too.

There is a complex discussion of power relations, colonialist exploitation, and the banality of evil underlying these events, but it’s made to seem a sideshow, and what takes center stage feels unimportant and utterly anticlimactic. The whole movie is like this, pointing us in many directions at once. As a viewing experience, it can make you cross-eyed. Nonetheless, this constant friction is one of the film’s great strengths. Although she altered the narrative in many ways — conflating characters, removing dates, changing the ending — Martel has translated the pervasive discord of Di Benedetto’s novel to the screen.

Zama is a period piece seen through the eyes of a madman. This allows Martel a strange freedom to explore the past, unhampered by the constraints of historical accuracy. No time is wasted in outlining the hierarchies of the colonial administration or the nuances of antiquated social codes. Instead, the viewer is submerged in the past as it never was. The landscape is a primal and borderless wilderness, the soundtrack is a collage of Spanish dialects and indigenous languages, and the plot meanders like a fever dream. Zama is a man adrift, with no ties to the people around him. He is a slave to his own ambitions: dominance, importance, respect. When he defines success as progress, he entraps himself in a meaningless existence. Eventually, he discovers that his only path to freedom lies in admitting defeat.

As the film ends, Zama is seen from above, drifting down a nameless river in a dugout canoe. The tranquil guitars of Los Indios Tabajaras return. Their music is midcentury exotica, sentimental Mexican pop dressed up in a faux-indigenous headdress. It’s a jarring anachronism. It fits right in.

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Sam George Jackson is a writer, editor, and woodworker living in Los Angeles. He holds a BA in English from Reed College, and he is the assistant politics editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books.


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