Before Zama, I’d never seen a Lucrecia Martel movie. About this time last year, audiences at Cannes Film Festival were making noises about a dream-like opus from an Argentinian auteur once called the ‘Malick of Latin American cinema’. I like a lot of Malick’s work, so when I heard the murmurs I decided to check it out.
I was half-expecting something poetic and mysterious, and Martel’s Zama delivered that and more. It’s a strangely absorbing, elliptical tale of a conquistador in crisis – a slow-burn adventure story in which a preening officer of a remote Spanish colony simply wants his misadventure to end. (Think Waiting for Godot wrapped up in colonialist hubris.)
What I wasn’t expecting, however, was a film so mordantly comic.
With arid humour and a dollop of the absurd, Martel tracks our hapless hero’s gradual humiliation and degradation as he waits for a transfer that never comes. In one brilliant scene, a llama saunters into the frame just as one of his many requests is denied. In another, a stable horse turns to look at him as if to say: ‘Why bother?’
Worth mentioning here too is the music. If I’d made a list of predictions about what kind of score the film would have, jaunty surf-like guitar riffs wouldn’t even be on it. But it’s a brilliant musical choice that weirdly complements the misadventure and sharpens the protagonist’s fall through limbo.
There’s a grand cosmic joke going on in Zama, and it’s captivating viewing. Quietly washed ashore beneath the wave of summer blockbusters and popcorn flicks, it’s a cinema experience you never knew you needed, and unlike anything else you’ll see this year.
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