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Bishops Castle Film Society

Zama - 6 Feb 2019

dir Lucrecia Martel Argentina 2017. 115m

Martel is a distinguished, if un-prolific, South American director: her previous film (Headless Woman) came out ten years ago. She returns with a reflection on the past, in a style reminiscent of the offbeat novels of South American writers such as Clarice Lispector and Isabella Allende. Zama itself draws from Antonio de Benedetto’s 1956 work of the same title. Don Diego de Zama is an official of the eighteenth century Spanish colonial administration in what is now Argentina/Paraguay.


He languishes in an outpost and a job he despises, but lacks the capacities to escape into something better. His ambitions, or more properly his pretensions, are thwarted at almost every turn by other - his superiors, his underlings, the local native people, and even his would be lover. Zama is, to an extent, a figure of fun – not in an obviously jokey sense but in the way that his contemporaries, and indeed the cinema audience, mock his inadequacies. There are, however, signs of a darker side to Zama’s story; they emerge fully in the later stages of the film when the colonial authorities mount a punitive offensive against a local bandit. Zama’ s relevance to modern lives comes largely in its treatment of an individual’s sense of boredom and aimlessness. Aspects of Zama’s failed ambitions and ideas are of course to be found in innumerable situations, many of which have become source of rich comedy – the characters of Tony Hancock and Alf Garnet come to mind. But the film is also a disquisition on colonialism and in this respect it differs from some of the more critical representations of the cruelties and injustices of European colonial rule: Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers (1966) is a classic example of this genre. Martel is less obviously political, but certainly does not hold back from portraying the negative side of Spanish rule. In this she is perhaps implying that the colonial legacy in South America endured in the continent’s political culture long after the Spaniards themselves had left – in fact, until quite recent times.

The film’s absurd take on empire is bone-dry but often ruthlessly funny. Even the animals seem to have Zama’s number: he tries to hold court with judicial rulings while a dog’s nose pokes curiously at him from the gallery. An extraordinary llama wanders into frame right behind him, while he learns that an uppity rival, not he, is in line for promotion. There’s a long stare from a horse which seems to wonder why he’s even bothering. (Tim Robey, Telegraph, 25 May 2018)



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