Static in the Tropics
We have reached that point in the year when the cinema release schedule falls into a kind of rhythm – one week, a major studio plops out one of their tent-pole movies of the summer, most likely concerning superheroes, or stellar conflict, or possibly dinosaurs, which then occupies movie-houses soaking up audiences. No-one bothers releasing another major blockbuster the following week, for the potential audience for these things is not unlimited, and this clears the way for films aimed at a different audience.
Although quite what this 'different audience' consists of is a little unclear sometimes. The main studio release this week, for example, is Book Club, an alleged comedy in which 'the lives of four lifelong friends are turned upside down after reading Fifty Shades of Grey, leading them to make a series of outrageous life choices'. I can only assume this constitutes an attempt by stealth to fend off the risk of overpopulation by causing people to violently lose the will to live. (And before you complete the thought: no, absolutely not. I have done my tour of duty in the Fifty Shades trenches – dear lord, I've seen things which no-one should ever have to see – and it would take more than that which Diane Keaton and Jane Fonda have got to make me go back.)
So this week I went to see Lucrecia Martel's Zama, instead. Argentinian movies like this one do not often make an appearance on UK screens, and I can only attribute Zama's presence at a local cinema to the involvement as producers of Pedro Almodavar and Danny Glover (yes, that Danny Glover; I checked). This is the art-housiest of art-house movies, I would submit, the kind of thing which two or three decades ago would wind up being shown on BBC2 late on a Friday night after Newsnight had finished, to an audience mostly comprised of dedicated culture vultures and teenage boys fervently hoping there would be some good nudity.
Well, there is some good nudity, I suppose, but it's all handled in a very art-housey way in that no-one makes very much fuss about it. Hardly anyone makes a fuss about anything in Zama; at least, not outwardly. The film's traumas are mostly kept deeply internalised (though there is one very significant exception to this).
This is the story of Diego de Zama (Daniel Gimenez Gacho), a functionary in a remote South American outpost of the Spanish Empire at some time in the 17th century. We first see Zama standing on the beach, looking out to sea; he has a sword and a rather fabulous hat, and behind him some of the locals are wandering about. Despite the beauty of his posting, Zama is very keen to be elsewhere, and is desperately awaiting news from the King of his transfer.
The news is not forthcoming. Zama finds himself caught up in the petty schemes and politicking of the other colonial masters in his area, none of which really come to much. Zama's only distraction from his attempts to get away is his libido, which appears to be in something of a state of hyperactivity: in addition to fathering a child with a local girl, he engages in a quietly energetic pursuit of the wife of the local finance minister (Lola Duenas).
Events conspire against him: he ends up brawling with a subordinate over a petty matter, with the deeply ironic result that the other man is sent elsewhere, with Zama left in place. Governors come and go, concerns shift: Zama seems to be stuck there in perpetuity. In the background of all of this is the near-mythical figure of the bandit Vicuna Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele). Zama eventually signs on with a mission to track this man down, in the hope this will earn him the transfer he has for so long been denied, but life away from the outpost can be savage...
As I say, this is art-housey stuff for the most part. The story takes a sort of Heart of Darkness-style turn in its closing stages, as Zama's inner desolation is finally matched by the circumstances in which he finds himself, but for most of its reasonably substantial running-time (just shy of two hours) this is the kind of film where the fact that not very much is going on is really the point of proceedings. It is about a man feeling becalmed in life, unable to escape his situation: there is an existential dreariness to the whole thing.
The irony is that Zama is desperate to extricate himself from surroundings which, in some ways, border on the idyllic – the film is set amidst magnificently-photographed vistas of stunning natural beauty. The cinematography is beautiful, filling the film with vibrant colour whenever the camera surveys the natural world. It is less generous, however, when Martel surveys the world of the Spanish colonial masters. There is an element of quiet surrealism to this, for instance in the scenes where serious matters of state and trade are discussed with llamas in the background (even indoors), but for the most part the members of the colonial administration are depicted as shabby, rather pathetic figures engaged in a sort of cargo-cult emulation of polite Spanish society – Zama and the others are obliged to put on rather bedraggled courtly wigs while carrying out their official functions, and so on.
There is, as you would expect, a lot of implicit (and not so implicit) criticism of the colonial sensibility here – the fact that Zama has a pretty miserable time throughout certainly suggests the empire is not doing anyone any favours. But on the whole the film functions on a more personal, existential level. It seems that Zama eventually forgets exactly where he wants to get away to, the means becomes an end in itself, one which (it appears) is perpetually denied him.
This is a film of slightly eerie contrasts, of all kinds: occasionally bleak and even rather horrible sequences are punctuated by some rather mellow jazz guitar. The end result is something which washes over you, rather – a subtle movie, obviously well-made, which will probably go down very well with the art-house audience it was made for.