Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) stands on the shore on the coast of South America and looks out to sea, lost in contemplation as the natives attend to their chores further down the beach. He has been assigned as Governor to this part of the Continent by his Spanish masters in the Government, and the feelings of power he should have enjoyed have been gradually - or maybe not so gradually - been replaced by a boredom that has settled in his bones and leaves him desperately wishing to be sent to Spain where he can join his family. However, the nation needs its empty leaders for empty leadership positions, and it doesn't look like he'll be leaving anytime soon...
Zama was director Lucrecia Martel's first film in nine years, one which met with plenty of critical acclaim but a divided response from the selected moviegoers who decided to give this a go based on those positive notices. Martel's style was slow and deliberate, so that every ounce of her protagonist's predicament was inescapable for us watching: we could feel the tedium in a place that, now it had been conquered, nobody in the ranks of the conquerors knew what to do with. It was as if the colonial countries continued expanding their influence on land and sea not for any great glory or power, but because by this stage they were mostly doing it for the sake of the conquest itself.
Now you've taken over, what precisely are you going to do? That was the query pressing down on the likes of Zama, who has risen to the status of a man of means, one who can decide the fate of thousands, yet when it comes down to it his meaning and worth are purely decorative as it's apparent nobody back in Spain gives a shit what he gets up to as long as they can claim the region he presides over for the King, who has likely only heard of his area in passing. Especially since nothing of any significance ever happens there - or nothing of significance to men like Zama, who looks increasingly ridiculous for clinging on to any hope he has any sort of importance beyond the title.
All very well, but you had the measure of Zama within the first ten minutes, which could be a good thing as Martel had sketched him in very successfully, yet also a bad thing since it seemed as if, like the Governor, she had nowhere to go with him. This was based on a novel from the fifties that was popular in her native Argentina, and thanks to her usual targets being the Argentinian middle class (of which she was a member, so knew of which she spake) it looked like she was tracing what she regarded as their corruption, hypocrisy and complacency back to their roots in seventeenth century colonialism. Not the first film, television programme or book to examine the world's colonial past this century, as it was a growing obsession with creatives looking for subject matter, though that cultural guilt too often had the colonisers the focus.
That was kind of the case here, though largely so Martel could send Zama up something rotten, for instance giving him blue balls that he cannot salve when no woman wants to sleep with him, no white woman anyway (Lola Duenas played the flirty noblewoman he uselessly lusted after) as we discover he has fathered a toddler with one of the native women, which makes him the object of a whispering campaign he can do nothing to stop. Just when you thought, all right Lucrecia, we get the message, the secondary plot appeared where after being thwarted in his desire to return to Spain, he opted to hunt down a fugitive instead, not a great idea as it turned out. This far out of his "comfort" zone that he was never comfortable in anyway, he is a fish out of water and a twist sends him ever further up the creek as the locals assert themselves in a manner their quiet but insistent presence has been indicating if you've paid attention. The first shot and the last shot are undeniably beautiful; but Martel purposefully found little else as aesthetically captivating in this history.