I just saw the 2017 movie Zama at the UWM Union Cinema as part of the 2018 Latin American Film Series, and it felt like an event, heightened by the cosmic-joke April weather, freezing rain going in, full-on ice-storm coming out. This was a highly anticipated movie by Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, being nine years since her last film. I am a big fan of her 2002 movie, La Ciénaga (it's on my first list of my 100 all-time favorite movies!)—though I can't remember if I saw her subsequent movies, The Holy Girl (2004) and The Headless Woman (2008). How have I gotten to the point in my life where I cannot remember if I saw a movie or not? I think your brain just gets filled up, no different than with computer memory—there is a finite amount of memory available, and once it gets near capacity, funny things start to happen. That thing about us using only 10% of our brain? That's horseshit, like the thing about breakfast being the most important meal of the day. Think about how much information your brain takes in on even the most mundane day, every single sound and smell. What's different for different people is how they processes it. When I see movies like this one, about people in the “new world,” it always makes me think about what it must have been like mentally, in that it was so different from the land they came from, and they didn't have TV and movies to prepare them. Even if they didn't accidentally ingest substances to freak them out, just the sights and sounds, it must have been like a non-stop acid trip.
This is another movie where I felt like I was understanding about 10% of it, and I just use that as a round figure—maybe more, or maybe less—no way to know—but anyway, it's to some extent a portrait film, about this character Don Diego de Zama, and his struggles... with just about everything. It's based on a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto—which I haven't read, though now I'm curious about it, to what extent the movie's odd tone, odd humor comes from the novel or the filmmakers. I will have to see more of Lucrecia Martel's films, too. When I first saw La Ciénaga I was thrown so off-balance by it that I wasn't sure how much I liked it until I saw it at a later date. I used to have a theory about Canadian cinema, that there was a particular oddity to it that you could feel more than explain. Sometimes I'd notice this about non-Canadian movies, which I'd then describe as “Canadian.” I got this feeling from some Argentine films I was seeing a lot of, though now I don't remember what, except for Alejandro Agresti's Buenos Aires Vice Versa (1996). Whether there is anything to this, I'm not so sure—though there seems to be some kind of odd humor from knowing that beyond your northern (or southern) border lies the uninhabitable—the unknowable, really.
I'm not sure how many of the years since Martel's last movie were spent on this one, but it definitely has the look of a work that saw more than a few seasons pass. Besides weather (it's virtually all outdoors location shooting), the number of funding sources in the opening credits is staggering. There are more end credits than a Marvel movie, and more producers than a Frankie Latina production. And animals; it's one thing putting dogs in your movie, but I've heard that llamas like to spit when unhappy with craft services. I'm imagining there could be a documentary about the making of this film as intense as Les Blank's Burden of Dreams (1982)—and of course you can't help thinking of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo (1982) and Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972)—the way you feel the presence of the filmmaker, relating to the travails of the characters. Here we follow Zama through one event after another, all of them frustrating, confusing, or just plain bad. I really liked the actor, Daniel Giménez Cacho, and wondered if I'd seen him before, but I don't think so—though he reminded me of someone, like he could be someone I know. The visual details are consistently stunning—there's always something in the back of the shot, something in nature, or weather, and animals are constantly wandering in and out of shots, so you want to just look at stuff. You can almost smell this movie. Zama wears pretty much the same soiled garments throughout, too hot for the weather, which look like they were expensive at one time. Unlike old Hollywood costume epics where you can almost smell the mothballs from the costume department, you really feel like the smells in this movie would be something you've never experienced, occasionally intoxicating and often unpleasant.
I very much appreciated that very little is explained in that clunky way movies do, out of fear the audience will be alienated by not understanding. There is lots and lots of dialogue, at times, but you get the feeling that the characters often don't know what they're talking about, or are deliberately creating false narratives. Zama seems to be in a position of power, but there is a continuous contradiction between the political, the wealthy, and the forces that are actually in control. He encounters characters whose motives are uncertain, including a woman (played by Lola Dueñas) in a couple of hilarious scenes involving such a visceral depiction of drinking alcohol that it almost had me heading for a meeting, post movie—just the way her personality changes with each drink. Zama clearly has desire for her, and her desire is heightened as she becomes intoxicated, but it's like the closer she gets the farther away she becomes. He is clearly frustrated, but also frustrated in not being able to express that he's frustrated.
We also keep hearing about some mythical villain named Vicuña Porto, which reminded me of the first time I came across the word vicuña, a very expensive type of wool from a South American animal. It was that scene in Sunset Blvd. (1950) in which Norma Desmond is buying Joe Gillis a fancy wardrobe—the encounter with the sleazy salesman (“Well as long as the lady's paying for it, why not take the vicuña?”) —kind of an unforgettable image from that movie. Which has nothing to do with this one, but now that I think about it, there are real similarities between Zama and Joe Gillis, and maybe you can make an argument that the entire movie is Zama's feverish recollection while dying, or in the compromised position in which he ends up. We finally do see Vicuña Porto (or a character who has either claimed to be, or is saddled with the suspicion of being him)—an unimposing goof who quickly assumes a curiously terrifying countenance. He's played by Matheus Nachtergaele, a Brazilian actor I've never seen, but really reminded me of young Jack Nicholson.
The movie continues like one of those dreams that seems too long for one feverish night of sleep, as we, with Zama, stumble upon one visually stunning scene after another—beautiful and terrifying—such as one with some indigenous characters with their bodies dyed red, seeming to glow against the lush green vegetation. There is an ongoing quest for wealth—silver from a rotting corpse, fine liquor, coconuts. I am curious about the references to coconuts. What does this mean? “Where are the coconuts?” The phrase resonates in my mind, still. For some reason it made me think of Luis Buñuel—and maybe Simon of the Desert (1965), or Nazarín (1959). I'm making a note here, of my ignorance, to remind me to read some more informed articles, or maybe even the book, and to see this movie again when it comes, as it should, to one of our local movie palaces. The story ends with Vicuña Porto's advice, to Zama, for survival—which hopefully no one will ever have to heed—though metaphorically, all of us do—but I'm not going to repeat that here, sorry—you're going to have to see the movie.
Randy Russell 4.23.18