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Film Friday Essay

His Loneliness is Atrocious: On Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama.”

Tantalisingly, in an interview with director Lucrecia Martel, writer José Teodoro speaks of the potential to

trace a line that goes straight from Zama to La Ciénaga, an unbroken line of people who, despite hundreds of years of geography, refuse to think of themselves as americanos. They want to think of themselves as Europeans enduring some protracted exile.

Despite the 200 years that separate the settings of Martel’s debut and her most recent film, the sense of identity denial common to both—which extends into her two other films, The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman, which, with La Ciénaga, constitute the director’s “Salta trilogy”—demonstrates a stasis, a problem in the fabric of Argentine society: a problem Martel has made it her project to delve into. It’s not the only thing the films all share. Beyond Martel’s singular, disconcerting visual and sonic and narrative styles, all of her four features contain blueprints of each other, sharing a motif, a note, an image, a personality.

In Zama, her first film following a male protagonist, the central figure is similar in a number of respects to other characters in the filmography. In his pathetic inability to take the temperature of room or recognise when he’s unwanted, he looks like Gregorio (Martín Adjemián), the hapless and sozzled husband from La Ciénaga; in his abuse of power and aggressively channelled desire, he recalls Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso) from The Holy Girl; and in his tendency to walk in a shallowly-focused daze, barely comprehending what he’s seeing and hearing, he resembles Véro (María Onetto)—the protagonist concussed after running over an Indigenous boy, a crime her well-connected bourgeois family scrub any evidence of, leaving her guilt as the only proof—in The Headless Woman.

That man’s name is Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho): he’s a corregidor, a magistrate, for the Spanish Crown in South America, stationed in the imperial backwater of Asunción, Paraguay. In Antonio Di Benedetto’s 1956 novel, dedicated to ‘the victims of expectation,’ [1] Zama spends his days pestering his superior, the governor, for a petition to be sent to the King, so he may be transferred from his current locale to the hub of activity in Buenos Aires or near Mendoza (Di Benedetto’s own hometown); but in the film, curiously, Zama requests to relocate to Lerma, to be nearer his wife and children (Lerma is found in the province of Salta, where Martel grew up and based her films). This is but one of the many ways Martel appends her signature to the story: in truth the film is less adapted from or based upon than mined out of the text.

Until Zama receives this unlikely note of good favour, he waits. In the first shot of the film, he’s by the banks of the Paraguay River, cutting a mock-heroic pose in his tricornered hat and red colonial jacket, his hand resting peremptorily on the hilt of his sword. But, as the film will make a habit of, sound disrupts his sense of self: a group of Guaraní children are playing just up the bank from him.

Afterwards, from a perch above the river, he sees a group of women caked with mud from bathing in the water, so much so in fact he can’t tell if they’re Guaraní, americano, or Spaniard. Not being subtle, one of the women spots him peering at them, and calls out: “Mirón!” (“Voyuer!”) What’s strangest about this sequence, after which one of women chases Zama until he beats her, is that he’s not really watching them: he’s listening to them (the women could have shouted “espía!”); this recalls a scene in The Holy Girl, in which Amalia (María Alche), the teenage protagonist, sits by a swimming pool, listening intently (while the camera frames her ear) to talk in the room about the man who imposed himself sexually on her earlier in the film. In both films the subjects are in the midst of reconnaissance: Amalia, with her saviour-complex, to formulate a mission involving her abuser; with Zama, it’s plainer: he’s full of intransitive desire, in the search for an object.

Colonial violence, of which sex it but one branch, is explicit from the start, and the film demonstrates it in both its plenitude and its force. Not only Zama’s beating of the woman who confronts him, but within the first minutes, a Guaraní man is bound and interrogated, set free by Zama’s subordinate, until he ducks down and bolts headfirst into a door. More brutal are the scars of previous infliction: Malemba (Mariana Nunes), a Black slave in the Treasury Minister’s household, is silent for the entire film, but limps when she walks because her feet were flayed and then lathered with a poisonous plant. But, there’s far less violence in the film than in Di Benedetto’s text: as Esther Allen, the novel’s translator, puts it, Martel’s ‘Zama portrays a society so violent in its essence that there isn’t much Zama’s body or sword can do to make matters worse.’ Returning to Teodoro’s point, quoted above: the overt structural violence of this period lays the foundation for the casual, assumptive, but no less pervasive racism of the contemporary Martel films. Despite the huge amount of time elapsed, there has been no increase in solidarity demonstrated by americanos towards Indigenous people within Argentina; the shadow of that violence, and what it allows people to get away with, is one of the central concerns of Martel’s filmography.

Another crucial change from the novel is that Zama has a son with an Indigenous woman, Emilia (María Etelvina Peredez). Di Benedetto has him maintain a staunch line of racial exclusiveness in his sexual interests, which Martel’s Zama hints at when he expresses a preference for white women: a preference contradicted by his actions. There’s also the matter of a legal hearing he oversees: he’s petitioned by an americano family with little claim to compensation (in the form of Indigenous slaves)—but their granddaughter, Indigenous herself, catches Zama’s eye. He rules in their favour because he desires her.

But there’s someone else he desires even more fervently, to the point of comedy. The desired is Luciana (Lola Dueñas), who’s married to the ever-absent Treasury Minister. She has tremendous skill in the art of flirtation, which Dueñas’s performance demonstrates with a preponderance of darting eye movements and a readiness to shift vocal register from close and warm, inviting Zama into her confidence, to reserved, formal, and eventually cold. This also brings out Zama’s resolute lack of charm. He merely, and obsessively, compliments her—all while staring in her direction with a marked intensity of gaze. Before he has even been invited to her residence, the townspeople are already cracking jokes about his obsession; one bit player tells him there’s a rumour going around that Luciana “has the most beautiful body Zama has ever imagined.”

And yet there’s one person in the film with whom Zama shares a more reciprocal relationship—and I don’t want to overstate this, but because of the consistency of queer desire in Martel’s filmography as a whole, and since he’s the only character who shows even a particle of a shit about Zama, I can’t ignore it. This is Zama’s scribe, Fernández (Nahuel Cano), who is caught writing a book on the job by the governor (the second of the three who Zama will toady up to, played by Daniel Veronese). The governor demands that Zama read the book and write a damning, obliterating, denunciatory report on its contents—in exchange, he will receive that letter, the one he so dreams of having written for him, the one that promises his relocation. Zama’s pained by the task: he shares an office, if not quite a rapport with Fernández; he who later tries to help Zama when he’s forced to move lodgings. But none of this explains the agonised look on Zama’s face as he delivers his report to a delighted governor. Downcast eyes, almost in tears; his face wearied and stony like a collapsing edifice. Zama, who loves to please the Crown, is dejected by this act. While this isn’t the clear queer desire of Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) for her Indigenous maid Isabel (Andrea López) in La Ciénaga; the inquisitive affection between Amalia and her best-friend Josefina (Julieta Zylberberg) in The Holy Girl; or the transgressive pining of Candita (Inés Efron) for Véro, her relative, in The Headless Woman, there’s too much in the hurt look on Zama’s face to disregard there potentially being a queer element in the relationship. That, and the way another man, later in the film, will deign to flirt with Zama as a way of reinforcing his power over the corregidor.

I have so far neglected to sketch exactly what the place of Zama within this society is, because I think it emerges from even the scantest of descriptions of the film. But I’ll be explicit now. Zama is an americano, someone born in South American, but a subject of the Spanish Crown. This makes him an exception within the ruling class structure: usually corregidors are Spaniards. His rank of birth is an immediate disadvantage to him, because he will always be suspected of having allegiances with his compatriots rather than his imperial overlords. He compensates for this with his obsequiousness. (When Luciana hears the way Zama idealises Europe, she tells him the continent is “best remembered by those who were never there.”) But notice the way the second governor uses his wish to transfer against him: whenever he is needed, which is seldom, it can be used to manipulate him; whereas whenever Zama asks about its progress of its own accord, he’s usually met blankly: “What letter?”—because they have forgotten; because he’s unimportant. His imperial superiors do to him with regards to power what Luciana does in miniature with his affections: they cultivate and confirm his fidelity, his devotion—while ensuring he will never be lovingly received. ‘The comic irony of Zama is that a man who embodies the occupying mentality of colonialism is desperate to escape the very land that he’s appropriated,’ writes Adam Nayman. An irony made worse, made tragi-comic, by the fact that his very loyalty as part of the colonial project, which holds him in no esteem, has fastened him into this place from which he cannot escape.

The absurdist tragi-comedy of Zama is maintained through tone and performance, and the notes of cruelty that run through both these aspects of the film. The book and the film are both regularly called ‘Kafkaesque,’ usually with reference to the stifling nature of both texts’ bureaucracies, à la The Trial. But this is vague when specifics are available. Roberto Bolaño, in his short story “Sensini,” which is about Antonio Di Benedetto, writes about the way a previous work of the author’s was dismissed by critics as ‘Kafka in the colonies.’ [2] The comparison runs deeper. There’s a tone, baleful and unusual, which, in the short stories especially, Kafka perfects and both Di Benedetto and Martel form their own variations of. Here’s an example from my favourite of the stories, “The Country Doctor.” Travelling through a stormy night to reach a patient, who has worms burrowing through a wound in his side, the beleaguered doctor is accosted by that patient in the following, highly perturbing, manner: ‘“Do you know,” said a voice in my ear, “I have very little confidence in you.”’ [3] This tone is located in Cacho’s performance as Zama: his increasingly exasperated expressions betray his sense of waning significance and vitality; yet he’s still trying to assert his authority and make known his stature: but by the mid-point, his heart is clearly not in it anymore, and his glances of resignation beg for a sympathy apt to be ignored to the point where they seem to invite cruelty. But the tragi-comic register is made fuller by a handful of side-characters who seem to possess a secretive omniscience about Zama, which he himself is not welcome to. A young boy near the beginning recounts a narrative of his endeavours, inflated to great grandeur; when he moves to the rotting house far from town, in which he falls feverishly ill, his neighbours know all there is to know about his life; Emilia and her family ignore and then deride him when he’s in close proximity. Most piercingly, the slaves in Luciana’s household—one of whom is constantly pulling the string on a squeaky fan—cast Zama scores of disbelieving and derisory glances, all of which seem to say: Do you know, I have very little confidence in you.

Di Benedetto’s novel is written in an unchanging first-person singular, and Martel’s films are suited to this point of view, yet somehow manage to avoid excessive or obvious methods of establishing Zama’s subjectivity. The tipped balance of Zama’s self is expressed most clearly in the compositions and shallow focus of Martel’s shots (the cinematographer is Rui Poças); the widescreen frames are often cluttered with people and animals and objects, usually close-up but sometimes cutoff and incompletely visible, sometimes moving in and out of focus (see the llama in the governor’s office), and when clearly visible within them, the figures are held in asymmetrical arrangement with each other. Martel’s is a visual style that both brings her characters close to the camera and finds way to keep them distanced, partial, nearly on the periphery. She approximates a character’s headspace while denying a genuine identification of perspective.

The other way the film suggests the experience of Zama’s interiority is through the creation of a horrifying soundscape. Sound designer Guido Berenblum’s diegetic sounds are given equal licence within any given scene—so whatever’s Zama is saying or doing has to contend sonically with any “background” noise, here equally foregrounded as the main action: other characters’ voices, the whirr of insects, the aforementioned creak and slip of the fan in Luciana’s house, and so many others. But these are just the sounds that can be accounted for. There is a voiceover in the film, for a blast of mere seconds, belonging to a member of the second governor’s staff. It’s as though the film is willing to privilege the viewpoint of literally anyone except Zama. Even more agitating: whenever Zama is delivered bad news, whether it’s hearing the governor explain the unlikeliness of his request being granted, or the impossibility of romance with Luciana, a non-diegetic noise begins to ring or hum; it’s an electronic shepherd tone, a noise whose pitch appears to incessantly fall. More than simply casting a glance back to The Holy Girl’s use of a theremin, the shepherd tone here reinforces Zama as a person in endless free-fall. Furthermore, occasional intrusions by the anachronistic but gentle melodies of Los Indios Tabajares provide an ironic musical counterpoint to Zama’s misery. His is a life full of anything but easy listening.

Zama’s impercipience is then expressed formally, and backs up a decision made in the adaptation of the novel: a refusal of Di Benedetto’s temporal clarity. The novel Zama takes place in three time frames: 1790, 1794, and 1799. In Martel’s Zama, these distinctions disappear: the only indications that time is passing are obvious dilapidations (increasingly tattered clothing, bedraggled visages, scraggy facial hair), and the succession of the three governors. The novel’s explicitness serves a definite purpose: eleven years after the concluding section, in 1810, the Argentine War of Independence would begin, which serves to underscore Zama’s uselessness as a mere placeholder in the decisive scheme of history. By not including the specific years, Martel compounds the force of Zama’s strung-out, anticipatory, Waiting for Godot-like suspension. It also connects the end of the movie more directly with the present.

Throughout the film, there have been mentions of a bandit, a revolutionary, a scourge of the people: Vicuña Porto. Near the beginning, he’s spoken of simultaneously as having been apprehended and killed, and as still actively savaging women living in Zama’s district. Near the middle, he’s thought to have been executed: the governor is wearing around his neck what he claims to be Porto’s rotted ears tied to a string. But later in the film, this mysterious being is apparently alive again. Per the novel: ‘Vicuña Porto was like the river; he grew with the rains.’ [4] A group is gathered to track down the notorious Porto. But the motivation of those chasing him is not judicial: it’s described by the third governor (Rodolfo Prantte) as an economic mission—Porto’s presence causes uncertainty, and with fortunes being made throughout the empire, this uncertainty must be snuffed out. (Another cruelty: as corregidor, Zama was not being paid for some time.) The immaterial Porto eludes his pursuers, perhaps because he’s among their number; perhaps not.

One of the troupe (Gasper Toledo, played by Matheus Nachtergaele) claims to be the elusive Porto—but this section of the film is inundated with vapours, and it’s possible that Zama’s disintegrating selfhood is merely dramatising out of what’s available to him; or it’s possible that Porto/Toledo knows this and is preying upon his precarious sanity. (I would like to sit Zama and Chantal Akerman’s Almayer’s Folly next to each other in this respect; and in the one I’ll introduce next.) Colonial violence rears its head again in this section in a new shape. While the group travel through the open, verdant plains, they come across an Indigenous group about 500-strong, who are all—except the children—blind. Next, they’re surprised by another Indigenous group, lathered in red powders and dyes, who are ready on horseback and with traps; they swiftly confiscate the men and take them to the utterly incongruous chamber (with slamming metal doors) in which a ceremonial rite, which alternately looks like torture and communion, takes place. They’re released, sans weapons and provisions, baring the red colourings of the Indigenous ceremony: alive, seemingly, only because they weren’t worth killing. There’s a structural reversal in this sequence—the disorientation, aided by the untranslated Indigenous dialogue, flips the notion of power Zama is used to: the people to whom he’s condescended, assumed superiority over, have asserted power over him and the other white men in the troupe.

Porto/Toledo, in the film’s final movements, continues his targeted intimidation of Zama; but there are accents of flirtation in his taunts, continuing Martel’s habit of including surprising yet matter-of-factly queer moments in her films. But there is no consolation in the end. Zama has a decidedly Barry Lyndon quality in its ending: Zama is judged a traitor by Porto/Toledo and his cronies, who proceed to amputate his arms and leave him in the sand. In the Teodoro interview, Martel confides: ‘We’re extremely aware of what we can’t accomplish. We’re always seeing things that won’t happen to us.’ This is the manner in which she sees Zama: as fully aware, only too late, of what he can’t bring to fruition—and this after so much waiting, so much longing. The final images of Zama in a boat, rescued, floating through a marshy body of water, are serene in their own way: a serenity arrived at through exhaustion and mortal agony. A close-up of Zama shows his pallor as dark grey, as if he’s calcifying; or assuming the worn facade of an abandoned statue on which mosses grow. The tranquillity of the failed. But instead of, as Gerd Gemünden sees him, ‘slowly drift[ing] away from history’ [5] in these terminating seconds, Zama seems to travel upstream, into the present, forming a direct continuity with Martel’s other films. His failure to recognise colonialism for what it is, or to challenge what will become its hauntological legacy, is the failure of the present, too, which Martel’s filmography charts. Zama’s primary negation, in this context, sounds even more resonant—it’s a line in the film as well, but Esther Allen’s version is better, more resounding, more conclusive: ‘But I had done for them what no one had ever tried to do for me. To say, to their hopes: No.’ [6]

[1] Antonio Di Benedetto: Zama (New York Review Books: 2016), p.3. [Translated by Esther Allen.]

[2] Roberto Bolaño: “Sensini,” in Last Evenings on Earth (Vintage Books: 2008), p.3. [Translated by Chris Andrews.]

[3] Franz Kafka: “The Country Doctor,” in The Complete Short Stories (Vintage Classics: 1999), p. 224. [Translated by Willa and Edwin Muir.]

[4] Di Benedetto: Zama, p.161.

[5] Gerd Gemünden: Lucrecia Martel. (University of Illinois Press: 2018), p.128.

[6] Di Benedetto: Zama, p.194.

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