‘Don’t spend your time lookin’ around for something you want that can’t be found’ crooned Baloo the bear in Jungle Book. It’s a lesson that protagonists of the ‘white men going crazy in the South American jungle’ genre could stand to learn, but, sure enough, they never. Zama’s Don Diego (Daniel Giminez Cacho) is no different, desperately longing for a transfer out of his purgatorial rural stationing, back to the city where his wife and children live. It’s obvious from the first few minutes of Lucrecia Martel’s adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto’s novel, her first film in nine years, that this is a fool’s wish – the untamed 17th Century Argentinian wilderness has already claimed Diego, whether he knows it or not.
Other colonial government agents come and go, moving on to the cities or back to the Spanish homeland, but Diego remains static, every attempt to escape met with bureaucratic apathy and forgetfulness. Stuck in the sweltering heat and alien environment, on a fruitless hunt for the outlaw Vicuna Porto (who may already be dead, or never have existed at all), Diego’s mental state collapses as the days and months blend in to one another. Martel has lines repeated and played over one another, soon making it hard to tell where Diego’s auditory hallucinations end and reality begins.
Bolstering this technique is savagely discomforting sound design. Constant, awful noises emanate from off-screen; babies wail, injured animals whine, and a captured slave’s fear and pain combine in a soul-piercing cross between a whimper and a scream. At a technical level, then, Zama is rather marvellous, but even with the disorienting sound, solid performances, and lush cinematography, it’s hard to shake a feeling of pointlessness. Plotless descents into madness are all well and good, but with the superb one-two of Embrace of the Serpent and Lost City of Z in the last year or two, you need a little more to stand out.
Lost City of Z had its compellingly driven and charming lead propelling a story with a scope both epic and intimate, while Embrace of the Serpent’s terrifying, mesmerising mystery seared itself into your mind. Zama can’t compete on the same level and, importantly, its treatment of its native American characters feels like a backwards step from the nuanced and respectful portrayal found in those two films. In Zama, the vast majority of natives are either silent slaves or ghoulish, mystical assassins powered by an unknowable connection with nature.
Martel gets some surreal and frightening scenes out of this choice, but letting the indigenous peoples speak as humans, not emissaries of a disappearing world is still all too rare. Given that colonists’ difficult relationship with the southern hemisphere’s climate is already very well-documented on film, it’s this striving for better representation that can separate a merely effective piece from a genuinely great, eye-opening one. There’s no denying that segments of Zama are truly haunting, but it’s just as frequently baffling and frustrating.