Tall and lean, fond of his powdered wig and many-sided hats, Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) cuts a figure of power and importance, but every frame of Lucrecia Martel’s Zama undermines his stature. Zama is a full-blooded Spaniard, and as an assistant magistrate on a long administrative posting in Asunción, Paraguay, he serves the king of a colonial power he’s never set foot in. A functionary who serves no evident function, he files the occasional incident report and spends most of the film adrift or simply waiting. The first time we see him, Zama looks across a sweeping frame out toward open water. He shifts his posture a few times, attempting to look important or purposeful, until he realizes that no one’s watching him.
Just like the great 1956 Antonio di Benedetto novel it’s based upon, the film is both sympathetic to and teasing of Zama’s impotence. His personality is as confused as his identity; he straddles multiple nations without quite belonging to any of them. Though Zama is both an embodiment and a deadpan critique of colonialism and its attendant violence, slavery, and racism—themes that reverberate through Martel’s more modern works about domesticity and class unrest, like La Ciénaga and The Headless Woman—he’s also a sap who’s drawn a poor lot. All that he desires is a transfer to bigger, whiter, more cosmopolitan environs, but his co-workers are constantly outmaneuvering him. Increasingly, the natives are too: The first word spoken in the film is “voyeur,” an exclamation and false accusation levied at Zama by a group of women bathing in mud on the beach. He wasn’t looking at them, but they chase him away anyway, grasping at his ankles as he scampers off.
How strange and apt that the year’s most sensorially and ideologically dense film is also a comedy of microaggressions, built on the minor workplace humiliations of a pencil-pusher in the 1790s. Zama requests a transfer recommendation, and his mercurial boss changes the subject; Zama is directed to censure his younger co-worker (Juan Minujin), who’s subsequently promoted and begins sleeping with the only woman (Lola Dueñas) who draws Zama’s interest. Our hero’s sense of dislocation is purgatorial, as Martel and cinematographer Rui Poças set Zama off to the side of ingenious, multiplanar compositions that render him a curiosity in a tableau of wonders. Martel’s typically detailed, immersive sound design heightens the confusion, as off-screen gunshots are ignored and the overwhelming titter of birds and insects carries over across cuts that may represent gaps of hours, weeks, or years. The noise only quiets for flares of anachronistic score: a few bars of 1950s guitar pop or, in moments when Zama can glimpse a happy future for himself, a weird reverberant whistle that hangs in suspended animation.
Zama’s uncanny visual humor is reminiscent of Miguel Gomes’s Tabu and João Pedro Rodrigues’s The Ornithologist, which are also shot by Poças and approach the legacy of colonialism from a strange angle. What distinguishes Martel’s film from those others is how bluntly its comedy informs its politics. The narrative takes place just before a revolution that united South American Creoles, slaves, and natives against their Spanish oppressors. At once oblique and straightforward, the film uses image and sound to posit this revolt as an inevitability without ever speaking a word about it. Zama’s size is diminished by natural rock formations, and shadowy heads and limbs always seem to be wandering by the camera in front of him. To the back of the frame, slaves and natives regard Zama quizzically or merely go about their business. Sometimes llamas, horses, giant dogs, and ostriches pop into view, similarly indifferent to his plight and his gradually waning sense of authority.
This dazzling visual schema transforms almost imperceptibly over the course of the film, as does the reputation and identity of a revolutionary, Vicuña Porto, opposed to Spanish rule. Early on, Porto is thought dead (Zama’s boss wears his shriveled ears around his neck like a charm), but in the film’s quietly fevered final scenes, he becomes a chimeric force—perhaps an absent charismatic leader, or maybe one of Zama’s fellow travelers. One of these men, played with impish villainy by Matheus Nachtergaele, may actually be Porto—or he may, like Zama, be a disillusioned functionary who’s abandoned his post in search of action and influence. It scarcely matters, because power is indifferent to hierarchy in the film; it’s often a shameless product of posture, the willingness to demonstrate it whether or not you’ve earned it.
Zama, a company man somewhat oblivious to the internecine maneuvering in his midst, never figures out how to behave. If he learns anything over the course of this extraordinary film, it’s that concepts as foundational as identity and possession can be illusory: Zama’s furniture belongs to the Spanish crown, and his ostensible subjects reject or ignore his every entreaty. Martel at least seems to offer him some release through this revelation. Her compositions gradually broaden in scope, encompassing more and more unfettered land, while local warriors painted in red move through the frame in packs that expand by the shot. In its gruesome but strangely tranquil final scenes, both Zama and the film seem to succumb to a quiet sort of fever, drifting away from history and into a land without borders.