Directed by Lucrecia Martel
4.5 out of 5 stars
“Believing that plot and writing are connected is one of the mad beliefs of our culture”. Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel said this during a post-screening Q&A when asked about the difficulty of screenwriting what is essentially a plotless film. She explains further that the recent golden age of television and the culture of binge watching plot-driven longform narratives has reinforced this belief. This growing impatience with a certain kind of cinematic wonder, a kind that isn’t brought on by narrative turns or denouements but rather on appealing to the senses, on invoking memories, on the folding and unfolding of time and the simple but ecstatic pleasure of laying eyes on a perfectly composed cinematic frame. You need to know this before seeing her work which requires unwrapping oneself with the comfort blanket of plot and an immediately comprehensible story. It took me a few minutes to acclimatise to her vision of what a film is but that little bit of patience and openness completely made my viewing experience so rich, so confounding and completely rewarding. By the end, I felt lost and found. Found in the sense that I arrived at some kind of a universal truth with Zama’s situation but utterly lost in a new world of understanding.
Quite literally, we begin in the New World during the late 18th century with Zama, an officer of the Spanish Crown. The first frame is of him looking out over the sea where he is stationed in a South American colony. It is a balanced composition with the sandy hills to the right of the frame, a group of native children in the distance and the vast expanse of water taking up half of the shot. It looks like an 18th century painting. It looks like a portrait of a noble, important man and he poses with a demeanour to match this dignified picture but this sense of a historicised cliche is only briefly sustained. We later learn that Zama is stagnating in his position and he wishes to transfer away from this place. His wife and growing children are far from him and he hasn’t seen them in a very long time. In this moment, he could be looking out at sea waiting for a boat that might carry a letter from them. The letter never arrives and nothing ever arrives for Zama. He waits and waits and we wait and wait with him.
For the rest of the film we see him rejected, humiliated and waved away like a bothersome fly. In the same way that the filmmaking requires patience from the viewer, it tests us in a way that put us in the same shoes as Zama. “Time does’t pass where there is no winter”, says Luciana, who plays a married noblewoman whom Zama flirts with but is later rejected for another lover. She’s right in describing this place. Here, time has stopped. There is no winter, no snow so the days all look the same. It fits nicely with Martel’s storytelling technique which is a kind of narrative inertia that defies the plot-propulsive impatience of a more conventional film. We move through the days slowly and skip over them with no timestamps. We are only aware of time passing when someone verbalises it. Sometimes the cut from one scene to the next is so abrupt that we are left scrambling to understand what is happening but then eventually they meld with each other like moss on logs. These jump cuts evoke a mental erasure of Zama’s restless, slowly numbing mind. The rest of the days are swiftly eliminated because they all feel the same.
You see, Martel isn’t interested in simply showing us what being Zama is like but expressing exactly how it feels like to be him. She takes sight and sound as a way to navigate the mental landscapes of a person in time. Whenever Zama feels a moment of intensity, say when a governor tells him that his application to be transferred is prolonged, an electronic hum takes over all the other sounds so that we barely hear any dialogue. It’s like the ringing in the ears you get in a particularly stressful moment and you go into a daze. Then Zama catches himself and the sound would abruptly cease. The sound design is really something in this movie. It emphasises certain diegetic sounds and de-emphasises others so that you are left with multiple layers of sonic fabrics that adds depth to the scenes. It makes this movie inhabitable. It makes the world seem closer.
This is the kind of film (and filmmaker) you want to obsess over. When it ended, I immediately wanted to know more. I wanted to know the historical context. I wanted to know who this director is and why she made the film that she made. I was baffled and disorientated but Martel’s images are so seductive, the sounds so alive, the textures so tactile that it felt like a real, new world. The setting was built with the matter and material of history. A history of colonialism and male power. But of course, this is not history but a reading of one. With people and things, Martel says in the same aforementioned Q&A, you can dissolve into other components. Martel has truly arrived at a dissolution of history. She finds its essence and examines it her own way. It confirms that arriving with some kind of truth only opens up new avenues towards other unknown truths.