There is a sense of grandeur in Lucrecia Martel’s fourth film, “Zama,” which is based on the 1956 eponymous novel by Antonio di Benedetto, a literary masterpiece that was recently translated into English for the first time.
The story about an officer of the Spanish Crown whose life is deteriorating in remote Paraguay while awaiting a transfer to a more reputable location is brought to life by Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho, who has appeared in Guillermo del Toro’s “Cronos” and Pedro Almodóvar’s “Bad Education.” The first-rate performance is complemented by the exquisite cinematography of Rui Poças who excels at shooting exteriors as in 2012’s “Tabu” and 2016’s “The Ornithologist.”
Our first glimpse of Don Diego de Zama (Cacho) is on the beach where the magistrate looks rather stately in his uniform while peering out over the waters of 18th-century Paraguay. As the film begins, the audience has no idea what the Spanish Crown officer is thinking, but by the end of writer-director Martel’s adaptation, the answer is obvious.
Sound designer Guido Berenblum does a marvelous job of recreating the ambiance of each scene as the sound of crickets, birds and the water cascading along the shore to create a sonic environment.
As female laughter penetrates the air, Zama is off to investigate. Just over the sand dunes, he encounters a group of naked indigenous women covered in mud, learning a new Spanish dialect (more than four are spoken in the film). Soon, the local dignitary is downgraded to the status of a Peeping Tom as the women see him and begin shouting “voyeur!”
The scene sets the film’s tone as Zama is repeatedly humiliated by an assortment of eccentric characters that include Luciana (Lola Dueñas), a tantalizing noblewoman; Ventura (Juan Minujín), an insurgent assistant; and the governor (Daniel Veronese), a pompous bureaucrat who mocks Zama’s request for a transfer out of this hellhole by granting Ventura’s relocation appeal under the pretense that it’s a deportation.
The look of disappointment on Zama’s face is accompanied by a descending “Shepard tone” to dramatize the moment. The auditory illusion is a favorite of director Christopher Nolan who usually uses it in an ascending manner.
Martel shifts gears for the film’s second half as Zama becomes disillusioned with the hope of being reunited with his wife and children back in Lerma, when he’s told the transfer may be a year or two away. Out of frustration, the beat-down magistrate decides to volunteer with a posse on a mission to bring back the head of the notorious bandit Vicuña Porto played by Matheus Nachtergaele, an exceptional Brazilian actor who has appeared in the Oscar-nominated films “Four Days in September,” “City of God” and “Central Station.” His appearance elevates the film, which takes a violent turn amidst the lush greenery of the Brazilian wetlands.
“Zama” is an elaborate piece of cinema suffused with so many details, both visual and audible, that it’s impossible to absorb everything happening behind-the-scenes. The film takes place in the 18th century, but anyone who’s ever been stuck in a dead-end job can relate to the disillusioned life of our protagonist who becomes a pawn in the period drama.
Cacho’s dry performance is finely attuned to Martel’s interpretation of Benedetto’s novel, which forgoes the book’s first-person narrative while retaining the spirit of the novel by using Cacho’s facial expressions to chronicle his sentiment.
The vivid portrait of colonialism marks a magnificent return for Martel after a nine-year absence. Let’s hope we won’t have to wait another decade for her follow-up release.