Just before the screening of Zama, the Sight & Sound special presentation at this year’s London Film Festival, director Lucrecia Martel urged the audience gathered at Odeon Leicester Square to have patience. She wished for her viewers precisely what her protagonist lacks. Zama follows the eighteenth-century bureaucrat Diego de Zama, posted to a remote backwater in what is now Paraguay, as he dreams of home and incessantly lobbies for a transfer, engulfed in the stale, static atmosphere of colonial folly. As the film develops, Zama’s desperation grows and his experience becomes increasingly hallucinatory, culminating in a final journey that is as much fever dream as waking life.
Zama premiered in the UK on 17 September 2017 in the BFI London Film Festival and will be released in 2018. Lucrecia Martel spoke in an LFF Screen Talk on 18 September.
Martel’s remarks about patience are fitting given that Zama is, among other things, a film about time, and specifically the ways that subjective experience challenges the banal measurements of the clock that we so often use to mark its passing. Zama demands that its viewer give up on waiting for meaningful events and narrative advancement. In their place, an immersion in textures, sounds and affects comes to dominate. In a Screen Talk hosted at BFI Southbank the day after the premiere, Martel turned to a surprising analogy to describe this relationship between film and viewer, comparing the movie theatre to a swimming pool: the audience should be fully submerged, feeling the film as water on skin. Martel noted that we do not live in this submerged state on a day-to-day basis – as she acknowledged, it would be a “harrowing experience” – but for two hours, in the darkness of the cinema, we are captive in body and mind.
Throughout the talk, Martel expressed her frustration with linear time, stating that it is something arbitrary that humans invented simply to make sense of existence. It enters the cinema in the form of strongly narrative films organised according to sturdy chains of cause and effect, films that annoy Martel for providing the viewer with all the tools they need to know what is going on from the very start.
In contrast to this dominant paradigm, the director articulated her desire to “unlearn” these logical orders and reject the typical conception of time as an arrow, with clearly delineated relationships between past, present and future. In Zama, this unlearning is most potently embodied in the figure of Vicuña Porto, a rogue European who has allegedly been killed a thousand times, even yielding his ears to a grotesque necklace worn by Zama’s superior, yet who somehow persists as threat and target. As Martel said: “The idea that the future is ahead of us and the past behind us is very embedded in our culture and psyche” – but in Zama’s spiral of time, Vicuña’s death is both past victory and future challenge.
Echoing the vitalist philosopher Henri Bergson, Martel spoke of seeking to understand time as volume rather than line, claiming that this more closely approximates emotional life. Such a defence of the non-chronological time of thought and memory, found not only in Bergson but also famously in the work of Marcel Proust, is often understood as a form of resistance to the rationalised time of industrial modernity, which consists of empty, mathematical units that deny and tame the qualitative flux of experience.
Martel’s work might well be understood in this lineage – indeed, during her talk she repeatedly mocked the use of scientific explanations – but Zama calls out for a second, related way of thinking about why a filmmaker might want to break time’s arrow. In the European imaginary, the colonial project was bound to an Enlightenment ideal of progress, with pillage and genocide cloaked in a spurious civilising mission of betterment. In creating a colonial epic that troubles the linearity of time, Martel rejects any sense of the European conquest of Latin America as a narrative of progress advanced by the heroic individualism of the titular character and his colleagues. Her portrait of colonial enterprise goes nowhere, quite purposefully. For Diego de Zama, there is no improvement, no success, no happy end – just the horrific eternal return of waiting for a future that will never arrive.
Martel knows something about waiting. Zama is her first feature film in nine years, following 2008’s The Headless Woman. Between the two projects, she worked extensively on an adaptation of Héctor Germán Oesterheld’s science-fiction comic El Eternauta, but when financing fell through she abandoned the idea. The shift from El Eternauta to Zama might seem abrupt, but as Martel explained, both undertakings are adaptations of Argentine source materials from the 1950s that involve an act of temporal projection, albeit in differing directions: whereas the former imagined a future of extraterrestrial invasion, Zama, based on Antonio di Benedetto’s classic 1956 novel of the same name, looks to the past. (The book’s first English translation appeared last year with the NYRB Classics imprint.)
Martel emphasised her interest in taking the imagination and creativity proper to science fiction as principles that would inform her approach to the historical past. This retreat from strict fidelity characterises her relationship to both the 1956 novel and the represented setting of the late eighteenth century. Notably, Martel does away with the book’s chronological demarcations and elides key passages, yet finds inventive ways of translating its first-person narration into cinematic form, particularly through a non-naturalistic use of sound and, in the concluding sequences, a striking deployment of colour and movement that leaves behind the weight of realism for something altogether more visionary.
In Zama, qualities we often perceive as opposites – torpor and enchantment, stagnation and fascination – are never far apart from one another, at least for the viewer. For Zama himself, who gradually succumbs to the strain of collapsed hope, it is perhaps a different story. From the film’s opening moments, when indigenous women call him out as a voyeur, it is evident that Martel’s sympathies do not lie fully with her main character. He remains forever unaware of what she knows, and what she invites her viewer to share, provided they are patient: as Walter Benjamin wrote, “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”