'Zama': The World that Colonialism Created

In one of the countless revealing scenes of Lucrecia Martel’s fourth film, Don Diego de Zama (a brilliant Daniel Giménez Cacho), the Spanish corregidor stuck in a northeast province in the Rio de la Plata Viceroyalty around the end of the 18th century, finds a group of female Guaraní Indians and their children. A two or three-year-old boy screams ferociously and crawls in circles, like a little lost animal. Don Diego approaches the young woman, who seems to be the boy’s mother, and asks, is he my son? She barely looks at him and nods.   

ZamaGuaraní Indians and their mestizo children

At this point in the film, one has the impression that the only possible offspring that colonial systematic violence, racism, debauchery, and decadence could gestate is a barely human creature, the metaphor of a history that is being assembled in front of our very eyes.

"Zama" is based on Antonio’s Di Benedeto’s 1956 novel of the same name, and as in previous Martel films, tells the story of a contradictory, obscure, and oftentimes confused character, who is both culprit and victim of the very system that classifies, ranks, excludes, and distributes privilege. Don Diego de Zama is portrayed from the very beginning as someone who desperately wants out. He observes with wide eyes and few words, as if there are not many fitting to describe the feeling that the people and places around him are unfailingly rotten. Martel’s ocher palette, closed spaces, shadows, and hand-held camera create an atmosphere that exudes lies, falsehoods, and filth.

ZamaDon Diego de Zama with crown officers Ventura Prieto and Manuel Fernández

Don Diego wants to be transferred. He is an official, who despite having a brilliant service sheet, occupies a position unworthy of its ability to distance him from his family and impose a heavy economic hardship. The governor (Daniel Veronese) pledges false promises, imposes harsh conditions in exchange for the transfer that never arrives. Don Diego, not without naivité, looks for answers impossible to find in a system where rationality somehow eludes him.

He clashes with other officials and is enchanted by Lucia Piñares de Luenga, wife of a rich official and businessman, who entices him with a potential erotic encounter that will not happen. Hypocrisy is the ultimate fabric this world is made of, and Don Diego slowly but certainly walks towards madness.

ZamaLucia Piñares de Luenga and one of her slaves

As in her previous films, Martel brilliantly portrays two worlds that move in parallel to each other: that of Zama and his people, the foreigners to the land who eagerly yearn for slaves and servants; and the inhabitants of that land, who do not need them at all, and are not interested in the stupidity and oppression that the colonial system has to offer. They have their own lives to run and certainly do not need the whites nor desire their company.

In "La Ciénaga" and "La Mujer Sin Cabeza" (The Headless Woman), Martel was committed to showing the false equivalencies and intimacy present in domestic spaces. In "Zama," the servants run the worlds of their masters and owners; without them these worlds would not even be. And despite the vast, infinite doses of daily violence imposed on them, these servants, workers, and slaves survive, grow, expand. Doña Lucia’s Black slave (the brillian Brazilian actress Mariana Nunes) does not speak. She is certainly able to; she simply has nothing to say to her masters.

Throughout "Zama," Don Diego goes through a spiritual, physical, and moral degradation that somehow manifests the decadence that surrounds him. His body deteriorates rapidly, he suffers and falls apart almost impassively, as if there is nothing he wants or could do. It is the disintegration of his world he is witnessing. And at the very end, it is the Indians he barely talks to who rescue him from death.         

ZamaA wounded Zama, rescued by the Indians

Martel’s upbringing in the Argentine northeast (the Salta province) makes her a quintessential witness of the intricate world of class and racial differences. For "Zama," her team recruited Qom Indians from Nam Qom in Formosa, Guaraní Indians from Misiones, Blacks from Haiti. What moved her to do so, appears less related to any intention to be authentic in her portrayal, and more to a genuine need for understanding what seems an inexorable trait, i.e. the persistent connection between exploitation and invisibility imposed, relentlessly, on the others of history.

At a time when the Argentine society is going through (yet again) to a cycle of classist and racist politics and public debate, and Mapuche Indians are being criminalized, their lands taken from them, their culture marginalized and reviled, Lucrecia Martel’s "Zama" redefines the meaning of radical political cinema.

Paula is an Associate Professor of Cinema Studies and History at SUNY Purchase. Her research interests are media and the public sphere in Brazil and Argentina during the second half of the 20th century, the relationship between film, television, history, and politics in Latin America, and intellectuals’ and artists’ political interventions in Brazil and Argentina during the 20th century.