Zama (2017)

Directed by Lucrecia Martel

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It’s hard to know what to make of Zama, at least on a first glance.  On the surface it reminded me of movies like A Field in England (2013) and, by the end, Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972) or Fitzcarraldo (1982).  These are all movies set predominantly outdoors, in some aspect of the wildness that seems to reject the characters onscreen.  This is fitting because early on in Zama a character inexplicably rams his head into a door, then falls to the ground in pain and mutters, “There’s a fish that spends it’s life swimming to and fro, fighting water that seeks to cast it upon dry land because the water rejects it.  The water doesn’t want it.”

All the while the titular character (Daniel Giménez Cacho) stares at the offscreen man with absolute incredulity.  The man’s message will be lost on him (as well as on anyone else of significance within the film) until he finally understands that what he seeks is an illusion.

Zama is a Spanish officer of some authority, but we only ever see and feel the powers above him.  He wants to be sent on assignment to the city of Lerma, but his requests fall on deaf ears.  The man directly above him, the Governor, seems unable or unwilling to help Zama out in any way, and soon he is replaced by another Governor who behaves in much the same way.

Many of the details of Zama’s story escape me, but what’s clear is his utter powerlessness.  He continues to play the game which yields no rewards, and his journey is some sort of loss of self until the final line of the film comes from a child asking him, “do you want to live?” to which he cannot reply.

Zama slowly comes undone, as if he’s decomposing before he’s even dead.  By the end he will certainly look like a corpse, following first his disillusionment with life and all of his original goals, and then after the man he was sent to capture reveals himself, taunts Zama and then cuts off both of his hands.

It’s hard to describe the specific plot points because I can barely remember them.  We are introduced to Zama’s political circle, a woman he may be intimate with and a child he claims is his own (but never interacts with).  There are multiple deaths and implied deaths, mostly offscreen, but names quickly lose their meaning (if they had any to begin with), so these plot points have little significance.

Zama is often just as confused as we are.  At one point a woman tells him that he has successfully avenged her, and his response is to say, “who died?”  He has no idea what she’s talking about, and when he says he hasn’t killed anyone, she says he then must avenge her.  When he continues to protest she says he must at least pay for the cost of the funeral, if I remember correctly, which I might not.

So much of this movie is a blur, but what I took away from it was that while the power structure remains, the people are replaceable.  The Governor is replaced by a new Governor, with no impact on the story.  Vicuña Porto is someone we are told has died (with the Governor wearing his cut off ears around his neck) but who Zama is then told to find in a third act exposition.  One afternoon one of them men in his expedition grabs his sword and says that he is Porto and that if Zama says anything he will be killed.

There are other less important characters who slide in and out of the movie, and in another instance Zama asks for someone who he is simply told is no longer there.  No matter who the people are, they fill the same roles as the person before them and the person who will follow.

Zama is someone full of ideas and some degree of ambition at the start, but by the end he will be forced to reckon with the reality that his goals were for naught from the very beginning.  In the end he will be maimed by Porto and his men who refuse to believe him when he says what they are after has no real value.

So Zama is set in some kind of purgatory where the main character struggles to make sense of the world around him and fails.  Despite his lack of understanding, the world goes on, and people continue to play the game at the end of which there is no victor.

Up Next: Blaze (2018), Chappaquiddick (2017), Charade (1963)

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