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Colonial misadventure in hypnotic Zama

Enthralling story of Spanish civil servant sent to colonial Argentina is a thoughtful film that has terrifying edges

25 May, 2018 — By Dan Carrier

Daniel Giménez Cacho as Diego de Zama

ZAMA, based on the 1956 novel by Antonia di Bennetto, is a thoughtful film that has terrifying edges. It speaks of the power of the state over an individual’s soul, and adds a layer of homesickness on top.

Nothing in this tale of a Spanish civil servant sent to what feels like the ends of the earth in colonial Argentina is laid out – there is no date line and no geographical location offered.

It makes the viewer as much of an explorer of the unknown as the characters within. It feels cut off – much in the way the characters, paying lip-service to European traditions in their wigs, make-up and outfits, are doing at the edges of the Spanish empire where such niceties feel increasingly absurd.

Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is the intense-looking colonial functionary acting as the dispenser of law and justice as the village magistrate, trying to impose the set of rules and traditions on a place that feels alien to the incomers, and whose laws feel just as alien to those they have subjugated.

Deeply unhappy – over-worked, under stress, hating the environment and the dictatorial role he has to play – he has asked for his term of office to be brought to an end. He wants to go back to Europe, to a land that in his mind offers civilisation, freedom, and the women he dreams about.

Meanwhile, his territory is under a form of mental siege – the jungle around abounds with myth and danger, made worse by the non-Catholic belief systems held by the indigenous people. It is also unconquered territory where savage tribes lurk and a bandit named Vicuna may be hiding out – an affront to his own sense of rule, and full of terror.

Poor de Zama has to deal with various insults, ranging from the behaviour of his fellow countrymen to having his own requests for transfer left unfilled. Added to this is his own increasing realisation of the absurdity and helplessness of his situation. This is all built up in a slow, measured and enthralling manner by Martel, with dark camerawork creating the idea that you have stepped into a time machine and been taken back to the immediate post-Conquistador age.

The soundtrack wafts from intense moments of quietness, with the background noise of nature to odd, atmosphere-building, Spanish-influenced musical segments. It adds to a hypnotic strangeness.

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