The twenty best films of the decade were determined by polling all the major and continuing contributors to Reverse Shot in the publication's history.
Devika Girish on Zama
But in 2500 B.C. Harappa,
who cast in bronze a servant girl?
No one keeps records
of soldiers and slaves.
— Agha Shahid Ali, “At the Museum”
The scene from Lucrecia Martel’s Zama that I return to most often is one whose significance I didn’t initially glean from the movie itself. In the opening of the film, adapted from Argentine author Antonio di Benedetto’s eponymous 1956 novel, protagonist Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a colonial functionary stationed in the South American backwaters of the Spanish Empire in the late 18th century, spies on a group of women bathing by the sea. The women have smeared their bodies with grey-green mud, which makes their ethnicities unclear. But in an essay on the film in the New York Review of Books, the novel’s English translator, Esther Allen, provides a crucial gloss: one of the women is translating the Guarani word “ñandú” into Spanish for another, marking them linguistically as indigenous and white.
There’s a marvelous, hidden-in-plain-sight quality to this detail. It’s a potent bit of information, vested with the film’s core historical ideas—its emphasis on aural (as opposed to visual) modes of knowing; its attentiveness to the ways in which fluid conceptions of race became essentialized through the semantics of colonialism. And yet it seems almost resistant to translation, even beyond the obvious barriers of language. To comprehend the moment fully requires a level of readerly attention uncommon in narrative cinema today.
Such moments of opacity (and untranslatability) are, however, not uncommon in Martel’s own oeuvre: in La Ciénaga (2001), The Holy Girl (2004), and The Headless Woman (2008), described as “The Salta Trilogy” for the films’ setting in Martel’s home province, the Argentine director refined an approach that imparts insights not through narrative or didactic clarity, but a kind of thick, sensory subjectivism. Argentina’s colonial history lives in the gaps and corners—and the cacophonous sounds and smells—of these films, reflective of the white characters’ repression of their nation’s past. In La Ciénaga and The Holy Girl, this manifests in the aurally intensified presence of the indigenous servants who hover at the edges of the white protagonists’ hermetic, bourgeois worlds; in The Headless Woman, the implication that the victim of the protagonist’s hit-and-run might be an indigenous child precipitates both her disavowal of the crime and her slow descent into delusion.
But her fourth feature—which arrived with its own aura of history, marking Martel’s much-awaited return after a nine-year hiatus caused by aborted projects and a battle with cancer—contends with colonialism at the level of the text, dramatizing the very origins of the malaise the infects the contemporary milieus of her previous features. The result is a film that’s perhaps more explicit in its politics than the rest of her fiction work, and yet remains, in keeping with her characteristic approach, oblique and perspectivist and splintered. The ellipses and puzzlements in Zama take on an unusual power—they invite us to read the film more closely, gesturing at the histories and narratives that reside just beyond its textual limits, while simultaneously reinforcing the constraints of Zama’s subjective knowledge of the world, and by extension, our own.
“Can a mute give her consent?”
In the fraught practices of working with history—documenting it, analyzing it, and representing it—this practice of drawing attention to what’s off the page is a profoundly anti-colonial one. Scholars seeking to excavate subaltern lives from the records of colonialism have long asked that we read between the lines of official histories, which tended to be written by the colonizers and thus mask narratives of resistance, and of their own oppressions and fluidities. Martel’s Zama emerges from a series of such one-sided histories. The contextual details of Benedetto’s novel are drawn almost entirely from other texts and not from personal experience: the writer could not afford to visit the place of the novel’s setting, by then part of Paraguay, and the extermination campaigns of the 19th century had left him with little opportunity to directly experience indigenous communities in his home province of Mendoza. He relied instead on books, such as the biography of a corregidor (i.e., a chief administrator) named Miguel Gregorio de Zamalloa. But Benedetto also appears to have been acutely aware of the limitations of this research and the possibilities of his project: he is said to have ultimately dispensed with all his research and focused on the “half-magical” America in his protagonist’s head, incorporating anachronistic speech and out-of-time geographical signifiers in his text.
Martel’s approach to Zama is very much informed by the fallacies of such histories. In an interview with Film Comment, she said. “History is the history of those who won. You have to find other ways of representing the past, to introduce a political element (...) History tells us that the submission of the indigenous people was absolute, and that is impossible because submission is never absolute. Not even in the concentration camps was despair absolute—that is, not even in the worst of places. This is why we included many small gestures of irreverence on the part of the black and indigenous characters in the film. The only thing that will save humanity is to avoid complete homogeneity.”
Martel populates her film with such irreverent fictions: she assiduously eliminates all signs of Catholicism from her diegetic universe (which reportedly made it difficult to find the appropriate period furniture for the film); her Caucasian characters speak neither in the style of the Golden Age used by Benedetto in his novel, nor of the late 18th century, instead using the artificial, standardized Spanish of contemporary Mexican telenovelas (designed to be exportable across Latin America), mixed in with Portuguese and other regional and border dialects of Argentina; and most pertinently, Martel’s depictions of the indigenous are self-consciously fictional, with their “haircuts, the clothes, the feathers, the colors” all being fabricated. Some of these decisions had to do with the violent annihilations of indigenous history—for instance, Toba Qom substitutes for a different, now-extinct Guaicuruan language in some scenes in the film. In other cases, fiction was a means by which Martel attempted to overcome the paternalism she feared might color her relationship with rural indigenous actors. “Initially, they assumed that they should play themselves,” she said in an interview, “but I explained to them that they should act as if they were somebody else, somebody fictitious, and they enjoyed that.”
Crucially, however, Martel’s interventions don’t amount to mere revisionism or self-reflexive commentary; there’s something more deeply radical about the ways in which she imbues her period setting with uncertainties and artificialities. While the film preserves the book’s first-person point-of-view, hewing close to Zama’s increasingly unstable experience of reality, visual representation allows Martel to lend even the non-speaking, peripheral figures in the film with hermeneutic power. Her distinctive compositions constantly undercut Zama’s stiff affectations and poses—such as in the opening scene, when he stands pompously on the beach, staring into the ocean—with the indigenous women going about their lives around him, often paying him comically little heed. In other scenes, Martel flattens background and foreground through her use of sound and framing, gently destabilizing the hierarchies at work within the scene. When Zama visits the home of Spanish noblewoman Luciana Piñares de Luenga (Lola Dueñas), whom he pathetically lusts after, the amplified creaks of the fan being operated by a black servant punctuate the entire encounter, reinforcing his silent presence in the room. The camera also gently switches focus back and forth between Luciana and her maidservant Malemba (Mariana Nunes), resting on the latter’s quiet, watchful eyes as Luciana and Zama engage in petty flirtations. These scenes hold us at arm’s length, drawing our attention to the characters that surround (and are subordinated to) our protagonists, but never resolving our curiosity about their motivations.
Malemba proves to be one of the most fascinating and richly complex characters in this regard. We first meet her in the opening scene, in which she catches Zama spying on the mud-bathers. When Malemba chases after him, he slaps her viciously. Later, she is introduced to us as a “mute.” Luciana tells Zama that Malemba wants to get married, but, she asks, “Can a mute give consent?” A few moments later, in one of the film’s disorienting reversals, Luciana claims, “She’s not mute. She has her tongue.” This becomes an irresolvable mystery: is Malemba mute or does she have her tongue? Is she unable or unwilling to speak? The tension between these possibilities anticipates a subsequent scene in which Zama comes to see Luciana. Malemba lets him in without a word, staring intently at him and ignoring his queries. When Zama asks her where Luciana is, she walks off into the hallway; Zama follows her tentatively, and stumbles upon Luciana in bed with his rival, Prieto. The mystery of Malemba’s muteness casts uncertainty over this scene. Did Malemba wield her silence as refusal and revenge, knowingly leading Zama toward Luciana’s rejection of him? Or does Zama, who by then has embarked upon a self-destructive path, project onto her innocuous silence his desire to investigate and confirm what he already believes to be true?
In this remarkable series of riddles, Martel lays out an interpretive paradigm that frames the whole film. As subaltern studies scholars have noted, the attempt to excavate and imagine the inner lives of those absent from the historical record has its own limitations—it often ends up being a projection of our liberal-humanist fantasies about the past, filtered through the biases and prejudices and desires of the historian or writer working in the present day. We can’t know what we don’t know, but we can acknowledge that what we know isn’t all that was. Martel’s flourishes in Zama keep us at a distance, always emphasizing the ultimate unknowability of the bygone lives she attempts to flesh out on screen. Her approach embodies what Saidiya Hartman calls “critical fabulation”: the use of fiction to respond to the omissions of history “both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling.”
“I'm doing for you what no one did for me; I’m saying no to your hopes.”
What’s the difference between a fiction and a lie? The bloody migrations and enduring legacies of settler-colonialism in Latin America—the underlying preoccupations of all of Martel’s work—blur the two, drawing on myths of false and fictionalized origins. The narratives of the settlers, even today, are legitimated by invented stories of origin and conquest over pristine lands, whereas their American-born descendants live in denial of their origins within the same land, clinging to illusions of superiority based on their European descent. This is the malaise that afflicts Zama in the film, encapsulated by a revealing exchange between him and Luciana. When she complains about the tropical heat and says she misses having cold months, Zama begins to wax poetic about European winters: “The snow… so elegant… the Russian princesses wrapped in furs… the perfumes… the heated houses, with rugs.” Luciana cuts him off curtly. “Europe is best remembered by those who were never there,” she says.
These notions of imagined and effaced origins permeate Martel’s formal conceits, particularly her distinctive sound design. The filmmaker’s famously polyphonic, layered audioscapes (often conjured with sound designer Guido Berenblum) are built around acousmatic sounds—diegetic sounds that have no visually identifiable cause and hence seem ethereal. These take the shape of offscreen, yet amplified snippets of dialogue and noise in her films, as well as specific motifs, such as the use of the theremin—an electronic instrument played without touching—in The Holy Girl.
Zama abounds in these aural flourishes: it features a complex audio track that mixes natural and ambient sounds, dialogue, music, as well as non-diegetic motifs like the Shepard tone, whose illusion of infinite descent serves to highlight Zama’s growing despair at key moments. But Martel’s most transformative sound innovation in the film is the manner in which she adapts the novel’s unreliable first-person narration to the screen: she dissolves strict distinctions between dialogue and voiceover, often playing other (unseen) characters’ lines over close-ups of Zama’s face. Martel describes this as an attempt to deconstruct the filmic conventions of shot-reverse-shot, which ignore the many invisible interlocutors and mediators addressed and invoked in a conversation between two people. “Understanding dialogue as something that just goes back and forth between two people is not understanding dialogue,” she says. “Dialogue is full of phantasmagoria.”
Martel’s excavation of the repressed polyphonies of filmic dialogue mirrors and intersects with another powerfully acousmatic form of speech (and fiction) in Zama: the rumor. Rumor has been analyzed by historians for its insurgent potential in colonial contexts; as Gayatri Spivak has argued, the “absolute transitivity” or rumor—its ability to circulate with no identifiable source—is what makes it a potent threat to order and authority. The world of Zama is rife with rumors of conquests, transgressions, affairs, and miracles. The most significant of these are the ever-proliferating stories about Vicuña Porto, a quasi-mythical bandit whose crimes purportedly include everything from robbery to rape to indigenous rebellion. Everyone, including the colonial administrators, live in perpetual fear of Porto’s possible apparition, speaking in hushed tones of the 1000 executions he has apparently survived. Some believe Zama almost captured him once. At one point, the Governor proclaims Porto’s death and wears his severed ears around his neck as proof. These rumors are rendered for the most part as whispered, often uncannily repeated bits of voiceover, and they mix with the other bits of unmoored dialogue floating in and around Zama’s head, making his perspective increasingly suspect.
The figure of Vicuña Porto highlights the potential for rumor to expose the fragility of the colonial state and its narratives. But a later reversal points to the ways in which rumors are also implicated in the history and perpetuation of colonialism. In the last section of the film, having been repeatedly thwarted in his attempts to secure a transfer to the city of Lerma, Zama joins a band of men on a quest to hunt down Vicuña Porto, hoping to curry some favor through his heroism. A few days into their journey, however, one of the men in the group reveals himself to be Porto. It turns out that the bandit is himself chasing a rumor about a stash of bejeweled coconuts.
It’s a pointed reference to the fruitless quest for El Dorado, especially as it plays out in Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), but it also invokes the founding myths of Argentina itself, which is named after the supposed repositories of silver (or “argentum”) that drew the initial waves of colonizers to the land. When Porto tries to torture him into revealing the way to the fantastical coconuts, Zama responds, “I'm doing for you what no one did for me; I’m saying no to your hopes.” Rumor, he realizes, is one of the core fictions of colonialism, the prison he has helped build for himself and those around him.
Zama ends on yet another aural fiction, also predicated on a kind of rumor. Mutilated and left to die on a beach, Zama wakes up on a boat snaking its way through a moss-covered river, surrounded by the chirping of birds and the rustle of the water. “Do you want to live?,” asks an indigenous boy, leaning over him. Suddenly, the folksy tunes of the Brazilian indigenous duo Los Indios Tabajaras invade this scene of vivid green, elemental wilderness with a curious jolt of anachronism. Los Indios Tabajaras became popular in the United States and Europe in the 1950s and ’60s, around the same time that Benedetto’s novel was first published, with chart hits like “Maria Elena” and costumed performances that exaggerated and exoticized their Indian origins for the benefit of white audiences. Their songs recur in the film’s soundtrack, representing Martel’s first-ever use of non-diegetic music. It’s one of the many little pieces in the filmmaker’s epic and infinitely layered masterwork of anti-colonial critique that forces us to confront the desire for “authentic“ indigeneity as an alibi—not just for the settler-colonial project but also for the neocolonial cultural production of today.