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'Zama' and the ethics of representing colonialism

film review

Lucrecia's Martel's "Zama" was screened at the Rubenstein Arts Center Jan. 14.
Lucrecia's Martel's "Zama" was screened at the Rubenstein Arts Center Jan. 14.

Listed by more than a few reputable publications as one of the best movies of the year, Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama” has received praise by the bucketful. The film was screened Jan. 14 at the Rubenstein Arts Center and was introduced by Dr. Keiji Kunigami, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Romance Studies at UNC-Chapel Hill. It’s a colonial satire loosely centered around Diego de Zama, (played by Daniel Giménez Cacho), a colonial administrator of imperial Spain who languishes endlessly at a distant Paraguayan outpost, desperately awaiting a promotion and subsequent relocation that never arrive. Zama meanders through his days and years, operating dutifully yet disinterestedly as an arm of the Crown’s official violence. He also attempts, unsuccessfully, to stave off his desire for local women, whom he both lusts after and disdains. 

Zama lacks as much a purpose as “Zama” does a plot: Although the film is a favorite of arthouse fanatics, its circumvention of firm narrative form has deemed it an “endurance test” by some. Of course, this surreal, disorienting style is the film’s much-praised differentiating factor, imposing an interesting cognitive power play on the viewer that parallels the main character’s neverending suspension in limbo. Nevertheless, “Zama” treats the topic of colonialism — particularly the oppression of indigenous and black peoples — with a subtlety that is easy to overlook but that, when uncovered, reveals great care. 

Of course, Martel is no stranger to the word “privilege”: She talks about it, interrogates it, makes movies about it and is quick to acknowledge that she has it. When asked by The Guardian whether she struggles with sexism in Argentina as a female director, she responded, “If you’re a woman, you’re white, you’re middle-class, things won’t be easy for you. But compare that to people in the same country who are poor, dark-skinned. I don’t want to talk about my difficulties because they’re just nothing.”

Martel sees her work as an opportunity to wormhole her way into a middle-class Argentinian consciousness that she views as privileged and ignorant. She often achieves this by tracing the contours of Argentinian daily life and exploring intimate spheres. These spaces are where the belittlement and ignorance of people of color go unquestioned by her characters of European descent, whose entitlement is unmerited to the point of ridiculousness. In a conversation on the film, Dr. Keiji Kunigami highlighted Martel’s depiction of the privileged classes. 

“If we think of this film alongside [Martel’s] other films, it says something important about Latin America and the Latin American elite experience … particularly that perspective that is hers [as] an upper-middle class white person,” Kunigami said in an interview. “Together with her other films, we see a society in crisis that is borne out of colonial violence. We see little power dynamics that happen in daily life, and the copresence of indigenous, white and black bodies.”

Zama is the archetype of the colonial Latin American elite. He is a decaying criollo who has managed to convince himself of his own nobility, blinding himself to the contradictions inherent in his pride. He will chivalrously volunteer to defend a woman’s honor, so long as the perpetrator is not a fellow official, and he considers himself righteous when he honors a colonial family’s “right” to the ownership of fifty Indian slaves. His thin layer of regality slides off him the way sweat drips down his forehead in the summer heat, as he plays at niceties with an upper class white woman (Lola Dueñas) while tugging at the fraying white wig atop his head. 

Certainly, “Zama” interrogates marginalization in a manner that is not dissimilar from Martel’s other films, but it departs from her previous work by attacking the bigger beast that is colonialism. In doing so, it falls into step with a long history of Latin American filmmaking that continually wrestles with the rights and wrongs of representing the oppression and marginalization of indigenous people on screen. How should oppressed bodies be represented? From whose perspective should a story of colonization be told? Should the viewer be implicated in what they see on screen? If so, how? 

“The film can raise some questions about the ethics of representing oppressed subjects. For example, I think something that is up for debate [in the film] is the way that the black slaves are represented. Is [that representation] ethical in itself?” Kunigami said. “This is a big debate right now … not only about the film, but how to represent colonial violence without being violent again.” 

Kunigami cited a number of “Zama’s” contemporaries, including “Vazante,” a 2017 Brazilian film that focuses on a 19th-century slave trader and his marriage to his 12-year-old niece, as well as “Roma,” Alfonso Cuaron’s semi-autobiographical tribute to Liboria Rodriguez, the Mixteco housekeeper who helped raise him. Both films have garnered outstanding praise from non-Latino reviewers, but they have encountered significantly more controversy among Latin American film critics. In an essay on contemporary Brazilian film, “Senses of Sound” writer Stefan Solomon contrasts the “mostly negative reception” following the premiere of “Vazante” at the 50th Festival de Brasília with the “vastly different context” of its screening at the Berlinale. Unlike their non-Latin American counterparts, these critics view such films with knowledge of the violent history that has historically erased indigenous and black bodies.

“Zama” comes to the table with a consciousness of both the past and its filmic present. Martel’s awareness of the context in which she makes her film is part and parcel with the film’s construction, including its narrative, framing and audio. Any critique of “Zama” that does not acknowledge this consciousness leaves buried potentially insightful analyses of the film. For example, the lack of narrative form might be revealed to be less a foray into surrealism than it is a mechanism against feeling sympathy for Zama, Kunigami noted. 

“If the film had a classic linear narrative, you would be asked to identify with Zama,” he said. “The debate is, how do we narrate stories in a different way from the way they have [usually] been told? I think the point of “Zama” is different [from a typical linear narrative]. I don’t think it’s telling a story, but is showing a certain type of experience, which is one of disorientation.” 

Along with narrative disorientation, audio and framing become tools of critique as well. Although the indigenous and black characters’ language lacks subtitles, their voices loom large and loud in scenes in which they are visually sidelined. When we are permitted a view of servants and slaves, the camera either settles directly on them or we see them tucked between characters, simultaneously in the background yet centered in frame. Although her technique is delicate, Martel uses language to aid the viewer in extracting visual and auditory meaning. In a scene in which a supposedly “mute” slave is revealed to in fact have a voice, Martel makes it clear that the world Zama inhabits is incomprehensible and ludicrous partly because he makes it out to be. When he deems half the world as too ignoble to be worth his attention, it’s no wonder that nothing makes sense. 

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