Based on the 1956 novel by Antonio Di Benedetto, Zama follows the eponymous 17th-century soldier (Daniel Giménez Cacho) as he waits to be transferred from rural Asunción to Buenos Aries. Writer and director Lucrecia Martel’s cinematic adaptation is contained within its own strange and fascinating microcosm, a place which defies conventional means of storytelling; a place governed by its own concept of time where cause and effect follow their own logic. The Argentine auteur’s radical style of filmmaking results in moments of ground-shattering cinema, but due to a sluggish and dry pace and lack of direction, the remainder of the runtime feels like we’re just trying to pass time with the protagonist.
While the narrative is focused on Zama’s journey, the intended focus of the film lies not with the plot, but in an examination of the harsh – and often horrific – way of life during this period in time. The most memorable and harrowing sequences are matter-of-fact observations that the military man makes about the world around him: the divide between rich and poor, slavery and disability are all topics which are handled masterfully through precise framing, editing and sound. Specifically, the wails of a severely disabled child will send shivers down your spine, and will most likely echo in your nightmares.
These moments of haunting cinema are unfortunately just that: moments. With the story and protagonist tailored to serve only as vessels to explore the broader existential themes, there is not enough meat or context for viewers to latch onto to stay engaged until the next poignant scene. Instead of coming across as a fully comprehensive film, then, the feature feels more like a series of loosely connected fragments floating around in their own defragmented world. Similarly, there isn’t enough characterisation given to the main character for us to really sympathise with his plights. Other than a goal to leave his current station and being prone to lashing out, the soldier himself is a blank slate.
A movie that openly defies conventional standards of cinema, Zama manages to balance the line between being completely fascinating and utterly tedious. Yes, there are moments of masterful filmmaking, but without much else to hold our interest, it’s unlikely this feature will gain acclaim outside of arthouse circles.
Zama is released in select cinemas on 25th May 2018.
Watch the trailer for Zama here: