For a film set expressly in the 18th century, the end of the world feels surprisingly nigh in “Zama” — but if we accept “colonial dystopia” as a viable atmosphere, it’s hard to image any filmmaker conjuring it better than Argentinian master Lucrecia Martel. Insect song swarms and summer colors practically rot on screen in this feverish adaptation of her compatriot Antonio Di Benedetto’s classic 1956 novel, as a Spanish crown officer’s exasperated wait for a royal transfer from his lowly South American posting spirals out into a full-blown tropical malady.
Perplexing and intoxicating in equal measure, “Zama” is undeniably challenging in its adherence to a mannered, densely narrated literary source: As storytelling, it makes Martel’s last feature, the brilliantly opaque “The Headless Woman,” look like Agatha Christie. But it honors Di Benedetto’s work by strictly cinematic means, and to formally mesmerizing effect: The frustrating nine-year wait for new material from Martel has done nothing to blunt her exquisite, inventive command of sound and image, nor her knack for subtly violent exposure of social and racial prejudice on the upper rungs of the class ladder.
Commercially, “Zama” couldn’t be a much tougher sell. Given its unjust placement in a non-competition slot at Venice, perhaps even festival programmers see the film as an alternative curiosity, though adventurous distributors will surely recognize its major artistic heft and prestige — particularly with Di Benedetto’s novel enjoying something of a rebirth following its first English-language translation, 60 years after its initial publication. Whatever its future beyond the festival circuit, “Zama” is sure to intensify the fervent cult of admiration for Martel’s immaculate oeuvre; one can only hope for a swifter follow-up to this painstaking, delay-plagued multinational project. (A whopping 16 production companies are listed upfront, with Pedro Almodóvar and Gael García Bernal among the cluster of co-producers.)
That the film itself was evidently an arduous undertaking is perhaps fitting, considering that its own elliptical narrative deals in ambition forever postponed, persistently and inexplicably thwarted by abstruse external forces. Not that Martel’s protagonist Don Diego de Zama (played with a soured, stately air of disappointment by Daniel Giménez Cacho) especially deserves the elevation and escape to which he feels airily entitled. An idle, uninvested officer of the Spanish crown, working for the local magistrate in a remote coastal colony in what is now Paraguay, he has contributed little to the impoverished area beyond impregnating one of the local women. (His own wife and family, who never followed him to this lowly posting, are but a distant, positively theoretical, memory.)
Zama may look the business as he paces the beach in his tricorn hat and cherry-red brocade uniform, but anyone would be hard pressed to define what that business is — least of all his distracted superior, whose recommendation to the King he requires before he can be granted a loftier reassignment to Buenos Aires. The inscrutable layers of bureaucracy keeping Zama from what he imagines as his rightful position might be described as quasi-Kafkaesque if there were any sense of tangible physical order to them at all: There are no winding, impenetrable corridors and teetering towers of paperwork here, simply a makeshift office and verbal promises that immediately wilt in the heat.
If viewers struggle to pull apart who is what to whom in a buzzing, restless first half heavy on formal encounters, that may be the point — be it a local governor, a traveling, booze-bearing merchant, or haughty, flirty noblewoman Luciana (Lola Dueñas) who repeatedly rebuffs his advances, these flitting figures eventually become interchangeable in their inability to assist Zama’s stalled personal narrative. Martel occasionally drowns out their exchanges in surging environmental chatter, or eerie, zooming, anachronistically industrial whines that sound like planes falling to earth; all noise is equal in “Zama,” with human conversation granted no greater importance. Sound designer Guido Berenblum all but merits a co-directing credit here for his inspired melding of flies, cicadas, water, mass human rhubarb and goodness knows what else into an uncanny symphony of delirium.
With his position at the upper end of this muddy local hierarchy so insecure, the growingly quixotic Don takes out his fury on those comfortably below him, beating native women who regard him with giggling contempt, and scrutinizing slaves like lesser horses. Martel and her superb Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças (“Tabu”) build systems of slavery with disturbing ubiquity into their exactingly built tableaux, servile human bodies pointedly fixed and flat in the frame. The deeper we gaze into these complex compositions, the greater our sense of vicarious shame. In one scene, a glistening black slave operates a manual fan in the background with mechanical regularity, a seemingly immovable part of the set-dressing until Luciana tetchily dismisses him: “I don’t need air,” she snarls, and in this stifling, scarcely human social circle Martel has so rigorously designed, we’re inclined to believe her.
It’s once Zama finally takes his fate into his own hands — leaving the colony to join a band of soldiers in pursuit of a notorious scoundrel who may or may not exist — that the film dares to breathe, even if the breaths seem likely at any minute to turn to final gasps. At this point, merely escaping stasis for an equally futile but moving target is the best Zama can hope for, and Martel takes redemptive beauty where she can find it. The camera steps back to take in open-skied vistas, restful island melodies creep into the soundscape, and the overriding palette switches from rich, overripe shades of chartreuse and mustard to cleaner, kinder primaries — one of them blood-red, of course, but the anxious, possibly alluring promise of death is the most unwavering fixture of this defiantly difficult, finally exhilarating vision.