On this episode of Fresh Films, the guys seize the opportunity to practice their Spanish comprehension while watching Lucretia Martel's take on the costume drama, a critical and satirical exploration of the misery of one colonial magistrate in late-eighteenth-century New Spain.
[Ondatrópica - “Tiene Sabor, Tiene Sazón”]
Marco Cartolano: I think I’m at a disadvantage for this film because I don’t think I understood everything that was going on. So take my opinion with a grain of salt.
Elliot Kronsberg: I don’t know if you were supposed to a hundred percent know what was going on in the film I think it’s more like an emotional experience.
Marco: Hello and welcome to Fresh Films. We’re a podcast devoted to reviewing new films out in Evanston. So today we’re reviewing the new film Zama. This is an Argentinian film directed by Lucrecia Martel. It is set in the 1700s in Latin America during the colonial era. So, Zama is about a Spanish magistrate. He does not really like his job, he really wants go back to Spain and he’s just bored and miserable, but there keeps being reasons why he can’t go back to Spain. He keeps getting increasingly frustrated throughout the film. And the film is a log of the indignities he faces through the bureaucracy and in completing this imperialist, colonialist mission that he is on.
Elliot: It’s basically divided into two parts. We have the major two-thirds of the movie, where he’s trying to escape his assignment by being transferred to a more desirable spot through the governor’s recommendation, and then the last third of the movie kind of flashes forward a couple of years. He’s no longer the magistrate, we don’t exactly know what happened, but he tries to return to Spain by catching a known vagrant called Vicuña Porto, who has been mentioned throughout the film as this guy who steals from inns and kills people.
Marco: He’s almost like a mythical figure in the film, because everyone talks about him but you never see him and it’s almost not shown if he’s alive or dead yet.
Elliot: People keep saying that he’s been killed or captured and at one point the governor wins these two charred ears off of another colonial official and he thinks they belong to Vicuña Porto, but then we actually meet Vicuña and he is very much alive.
Marco: So I want to talk a bit about why this film might be a bit less penetrable than a lot of the other films we’ve reviewed and that’s in the style of it. The film is really not plot-heavy, it’s about the mood, the cinematography, the performances and the sound editing and sound mixing. We watch through a lot of very long takes of Zama going through the motions. It’s a lot of really quiet scenes of the elites in this country being elites and kind of the boredom and tedium of that. It wants to evoke the frustration and discomfort that comes with the inability to have forward momentum in the audience, and that’s a very risky thing to do because it risks turning off your audience because they have to feel those same emotions.
Elliot: It reminded me of the costume dramas of the mid-seventies to eighties – Barry Lyndon, or Dangerous Liaisons, Valmont...
Marco: From everything I’ve heard about Barry Lyndon I think this sounds a lot like what I imagine Barry Lyndon is.
Elliot: I mean it’s half the duration of Barry Lyndon, and I think they’re very different films, Zama and Barry Lyndon. But just the style reminded me of Barry Lyndon, if all the characters were transported to a desert island. So all the wigs and the dresses, the elaborate late-eighteenth-century clothing, it’s a little worn. You can tell when people put on the wigs they’re flattened and a little messy. Everybody’s been there for a while and travel is not quick. There’s this paradox of them being isolated in the new world even though it’s the late 18th century and there are all these settlements and New Spain is huge, spanning from the tip of Chile all the way up to what’s now the United States, but I really dug the atmosphere of the film. Marco mentioned the editing and I kind of liked that we slowed down a bit compared to your normal American studio film. At one point there was a shot taken from Zama’s back and we just lingered there for thirty seconds or so, and I don’t know if this is a representative shot for the film, I just happened to notice this one shot. I really think it helped kind of deliver the audience to this world that the camera would linger for so long and you’d always feel like we were in the scene just a little bit longer than maybe we should have been. At times it’s a very funny movie and I think it’s on purpose but it could very well just be laughing at the flamboyancy of late-eighteenth-century elites.
Marco: That’s a flamboyancy that usually is played up for a very regal effect, in this film it just feels a little lame because it’s so much more gritty and non-stylized as it would be in a posh British legacy film about 18th century lovers or something.
Elliot: But I feel like the characters don’t exactly know that, like they’re acting the same as they would in Valmont or Dangerous Liaisons, except they’re in a totally different world. There’s one character throughout the film, I don’t even know if he’s given a name. He’s just some servant who consistently walks around in a very elaborate officer’s jacket and a loincloth, that’s it, that’s what he wears and he becomes a joke throughout the film because he always appears and is like, “Oh I’m looking for Don Diego de Zama,” and Zama’s like, “Oh I’m right here we’ve had this same interaction half a dozen times. What is it?” And it’s always the same thing, it’s always the governor wants to see him or something, but in the European world that guy would be all decked out in boots and pantaloons and several different layers of coats and undershirts and a wig.
Marco: This film also wants to get across at a theme. That theme is very much a takedown of the colonialist system and the ways that it traps both the perpetrators as well as its victims. The way that European cinema tends to romanticize this period of history, it deflates that by showing gaudy a lot of their fashion and their traditions really are. Also Zama isn’t some sort of man of high stature, he’s not a very noble and honorable figure, he’s a little bit of a creep.
Elliot: He is a creep, but he’s also the character that you almost have to identify with because he suffers just as much as any other character. Going into this film I thought it would be very vehemently anti-colonialist, but it’s much more of a nuanced critique from within the system. It’s not like How Tasty Was My Little Frenchman or, I don’t know, Cannibal Holocaust or something.
Marco: This is the only film podcast that will compare this movie to Cannibal Holocaust.
Elliot: I mean, Cannibal Holocaust starts with a comparable situation, you have a bunch of white Europeans going into South America and trying to exploit it. I think it’s a much more focused and maybe intelligent critique of colonialism because it really sits there and talks about how detrimental it is both for the natives and for the perpetuators of this system. I think it kind of questions the reasons why these colonists are eve there, it’s not a hospitable environment, they’re all miserable…
Marco: And the one shot of glory that they have in hunting down this criminal turns out to be this embarrassing Kafkaesque farce about how weak and incapable they are of actually getting shit done.
Elliot: And he’s a Spaniard, like they brought the problem with them to the colony. He’s a Spanish soldier just like the rest of them, he just happens to also be this legendary thief whose, spoiler alert, he’s a member of the soldiers tasked with hunting him down. It’s all a big joke; in the end you’re not really happy that Zama has accomplished anything, cause he hasn’t. He’s still not home, he ends the film with much less than he had in the beginning, and there’s really no hope. It’s kind of refreshing to have the story of an anti-hero who is not redeemed at the end.
[Los Indios Tabajaras - “Amapola”]
Marco: So I think we’re going to move on now to our final thoughts about Zama, I’ll go first. So Zama is a lot more of a mood piece, a lot more of a film-as-an-experience type of movie then we would usually expect in America. It’s very well done, very well shot, has a lot of very powerful and interesting striking images and scenes. I personally really agree with its message in the end about the banality and the stupidity of colonialism. I would say I wasn’t entirely on its wavelength when I first saw it. I feel like if I watched it again I would appreciate it a lot more. I think I appreciate it now more so than when I was watching it. I would recommend this film as a very unique experience. I would just caution to say, know you’re getting into a much more mood-driven film that’s based much more heavily on evoking frustration and ennui in the viewer than other films. Elliot, what did you think about this film?
Elliot: I really loved Zama. From the gorgeous cinematography of the tropical location, the long, lingering shots. I thought the performances were very good. It did evoke this kind of frustration, but I was kind of excited by it a little bit. We briefly mentioned that the sound design—there’s always something going on offscreen—some minor characters that we never really see doing something or arguing about something and it’s a really full soundscape, which I appreciate. I definitely recommend this film to whoever can sit through a two hour film in Spanish that moves quite slowly. It’s both funny and has a strong theme, the only thing I would say is, it’s not super easy to follow, but if you kind of get in the right mindset it’s more about the feelings it evokes than following every little point in the story. So if you come away from it kind of understanding what went on, then I think that's definitely good enough. Anyway, I thought it was a great film. I should go back and look at Lucrecia Martel’s previous films because I really enjoyed both the technical and stylistic aspects of Zama. This has been Fresh Films, from NBN Audio. You can find us online in the audio section of NorthbyNorthwestern.com and on Apple Podcasts. If you liked this podcast, you can go ahead and subscribe online. I’m Elliot Kronsberg.
Marco:I’m Marco Cartolano.
Elliot: See ya.
[Geoff Muldaur - “Brazil”]