Sunday, October 1, 2017


We’re all familiar with the “Acid Western” (Six String Samurai, Roadside Prophets, Straight To Hell, Dust Devil, Dead Man, etc) but the “acid historical drama” (the genre that Zama very much falls under) is often overlooked. From Aguirre: The Wrath Of God To Valhalla Rising and so many more in between (Walker, Cobra Verde, Marie Antoinette, Jauja, etc), the acid historical drama has always been kicking around but hasn’t gotten the same recognition as other “alt” movie genres.
“Acid” films do have plots but they’re also trippy (hence the “acid” label), atmospheric, sometimes aimless and occasionally unflinchingly violent. Zama is all of those things and more (I wouldn’t dare call it a ghost story but you do find yourself questioning who and/or what is real from time to time). By the final act you start to question the meaning of any & everything as we age along with our protagonist...

Diego De Zama at the start of Zama (L) and the end of Zama (R)

The aging of Diego De Zama is pretty similar to that of Florya in Come & See (and by the end of their respective films they’re both quite broken).

Come & See

Lucrecia Mattel’s latest film certainly follows down the same path as the aforementioned stories but it also stands out on its own due to the piercing (colorful) visuals and isolated moments of harsh violence. That's what’s so disorienting about it. It’s an incredibly dreary and sometimes violent film but the color palette would have you think otherwise (bright beautiful colors often give off a more positive & energetic vibe).
And that’s not to say other films don’t have their share of violence. It's just that Martel’s is a bit more brutal in my opinion. I love Nicolas Winding Refn very much but the violence in a movie like Valahalla Rising is intended to be entertaining to some degree. That’s not really the case with Zama. With Valhalla Refn wants his audience to cheer while Martel wants her audience to look away it fright.
But Valhalla Rising shouldn’t be dismissed. Especially in the case of Zama. Both films have strong visual & thematic similarities on a skeletal/surface level

Zama / Valhalla Rising

My arrogant side cringes at the thought of comparing something to Stanley Kubrick in 2017 (because honestly what film can’t be compare to Kubrick with decent writing and/or a long-winded rationalization?). But on a visual level Zama kind of feels like the color palettes from the bathroom scene in The Shining turned up slightly. And I appreciate Lucrecia Martel’s use of color in Zama because while the entire film is beautiful, the piercing colors (specifically greens, oranges & reds) are sprinkled throughout the movie or in the background rather than shoved down our eyeballs from start to finish...

There’s nothing like waiting on a film for years that actually delivers (in the case of Zama we’ve waited almost a decade for Lucrecia Martel to put out a new feature). This movie delivered tenfold in fact. This isn’t exactly something I’d blindly recommend to anyone (although I wouldn’t be mad at this being someone’s introduction to Lucrecia Martel’s work) but at the same time you don’t have to necessarily belong to the (“arthouse”) audience that this movie is primarily geared towards in order to enjoy it. If you’re a history buff or watch those expedition shows on A&E or the history channel then there’s no reason a Lucrecia Martel novice couldn’t enjoy Zama.

This is new territory for Martel given that this is a period piece. The basic plot centers around the existential plight & loneliness of our main character Diego De Zama - a court councilor stationed on a remote colonial outpost waiting to be transferred back home. At the start of the film he’s already somewhat miserable & alone and things only go downhill from there (he agrees to take on a vague mission that truly tests his will).
Race is also a secondary plot. It should be noted that the Black characters in the film (who are all slaves of course) say either nothing or very little but their presence is still profound. The way the camera focuses (and lingers) on the Black characters is very intentional.

But while this is Lucrecia Martel's first movie set outside of modern times, it still fits with the rest of her filmography. La Cienaga may not to be a traditional “history lesson” but it is a peak in to Latin-American culture much like Zama. Diego De Zama is also going through the same kind of existential crisis as Veronica in The Headless Woman.
The biggest strand of connective DNA is the element of loneliness & isolation. Diego De Zama is very detached. This is also a common theme in the work of fellow Argentinian filmmaker Lisandro Alonso who, like Lucrecia Martel, recently delved in to the acid historical genre with Jauja (2015). From La Libertad to Jauja (which is a first cousin of Zama) the characters in Lisandro Alonso’s universe are often alone and/or isolated just like Diego De Zama.

Here I was, in the midst of a vast continent that was invisible to me though I felt it all around, a desolate paradise, far too immense for my legs. 

This excerpt taken from the book that inspired Lucrecia Martel’s latest film truly sums up the story of Zama as far as I’m concerned.

the loneliness in Zama is similar to the art of David Caspar Friedrich...

At the end of Zama, Diego is asked if he wants to live and his response (if you wanna call it that) is rather cryptic & open-ended. Zama is the personification of complex as it is both dreary & beautiful. It hasn't even been 24 hours so I wont give any hyperbolic final statements on it, but this is one of the best films I've seen this year.


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