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Stoop to Conquistador

Strand Releasing

Zama (2017)

Adapted from Antonio di Benedetto's acclaimed 1956 novel, "Zama" is Lucrecia Martel's first period piece. The film concerns the eponymous 18th-century Spanish officer, played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, stationed in a middle-of-nowhere colony (Paraguay per the novel) away from wife and child, repeatedly kowtowing to successive superiors in a desperate and futile bid for a recall or transfer.

The source material's depiction of the crumbling bourgeois class certainly seems like a natural fit for Ms. Martel, who forgoes some of di Benedetto's structural formalism to indulge her own auteurist preoccupations. Unrequited lust and unrewarded bureaucratic toil underscore the increasing hopelessness and meaninglessness of Zama's existence. His own personal failings and self-destruction, though, seem like mere footnotes buried under unending misfortunes.

Although the savagery of Western civilization and colonialism is evident throughout, one wishes Ms. Martel could have made much more of it – especially when it's so ripe for comparison and contrast with the region's indigenous people and culture, dismissed as primitive at first glance. The natives are relegated to the background, and even Zama's aboriginal mistress and illegitimate offspring seem to elicit less sympathy than the wife and child back home who are never shown.

Zama's existential crisis ultimately culminates in a life-and-death situation. Although the film never explicitly poses the dilemma, Ms. Martel does leave you wondering whether death may be preferable to living in a personal hell.


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