With her fourth feature, Zama, an adaptation of Antonio Di Benedetto's novel about a corregidor stationed in a remote South American backwater of the Spanish Empire, Lucrecia Martel directly engages with Argentina's colonial legacy, although her approach remains allusive and layered. She transforms Benedetto's epic into a dizzying, sensory head trip about a man's gradual psychological decay, allowing larger historical and political themes to emerge organically from her meticulous formal compositions. Our introduction to Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) demonstrates this beautifully: As barely clothed native children frolic freely behind him, Zama stands on the beach gazing morosely at the ocean, as if awaiting his deliverance, his government attire comically stiff for the setting.
Zama spends most of the film in endless anticipation for a transfer to Lerma, where his wife and son await him. In the meantime, he occupies himself with petty bureaucratic matters and obsessive sexual conquests that chip away further at his sanity. Martel and her longtime sound designer Guido Berenblum use inventive audioscapes to draw us into Zama's fraying subconscious. They approximate the novel's unreliable first-person narration by rendering several characters' dialogue and inner monologues into a single, quasi-hallucinatory voiceover, accompanied by ambient sounds that fade in, out and into each other. Even as Martel steeps the film deep within Zama's perspective, she observes his tortuous male pathos with the critical distance of a female gaze. He does cut a pitiful figure -- especially in the second half, when he is cast into the wilderness and endures bodily castrations at the hands of bandits -- but he remains satiric, a parody of masculine and colonial self-importance. His interactions with women are revealing.