Early on in Lucrecia Martel's "Zama," in a Spanish-held South American colony during the late 18th century, a crown official named Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) tries in vain to seduce a married noblewoman, Luciana (Lola Dueñas). There's probably a metaphor to be gleaned from this failed attempt at conquest, but Martel is more interested in drawing our eyes and ears to the other person in the room: a servant (Tendjyb Manigat), an indigenous black man, fanning them in the background.
Few filmmakers use sound as pointedly and evocatively as Martel does, and even when she cuts to a closeup of Zama and Luciana, the steady, distracting creak of the fan persists. The noise makes a mockery of their intimacy, and after a while, it begins to take on the quality of an indictment. In "Zama," a brilliantly discomfiting portrait of European colonialism and its discontents, every sound and image tells the same sickening story.
Martel adapted that story from the Argentinian writer Antonio di Benedetto's 1956 novel, only recently translated into English (by Esther Allen) and now widely hailed as a modern literary classic. It's a bitterly ironic account of one man's pride, pettiness and self-pity, a devastating critique of a corrupt social order cast in intimate, existential terms. Martel's "Zama" is remarkably faithful to di Benedetto's, despite or perhaps because of the fact that is also its own highly idiosyncratic creature. Rather than losing its focus, as so many screen adaptations of first-person narratives do, the movie ingeniously forges its own point of view.
I've seen "Zama" three times now and can attest that it grows richer, stranger and more deeply transporting with every viewing. Remarkably, the narrative structure remains nearly as oblique and mysterious the third time as it does the first: You can never quite tell, or remember, what happens next. Never one for connect-the-dots exposition, Martel gives this fragmentation an extraordinary sense of purpose. Life, as she perceives it and as most experience it, doesn't move according to a simple chain of cause and effect.
That's not to suggest that she's aiming for realism in any strict sense. "Zama," her long-awaited fourth feature and her first one set in the distant past, is a dense, sweltering miasma of a movie, so rich in humid atmosphere that you can practically feel the characters and their awful moment wasting away. But Martel's sense of historical integrity goes beyond her meticulous use of indigenous languages and moldering, lived-in production design. It's essential to her methods that we don't simply navigate this world at our convenience, that none of her characters alter their words or make their motives more transparent for our sake.
We are interlopers here, and so too is Zama, a Spanish corregidor played in a superbly weary, bone-dry performance by Daniel Giménez Cacho. Zama is a magistrate, a servant of the Old World born in the New, now separated from his wife and children in a dead-end backwater somewhere along the Paraguay River. In every sense a man without a country, he longs for a transfer to the Argentine city of Lerma, where he's certain he will find the purpose and prosperity that have long eluded him.
The nod to Lerma (in the novel, it's Buenos Aires) is a nice authorial touch; it's located in Martel's home province, Salta, the setting of her three previous narrative features. In those contemporary dramas, Martel used her remarkable formal powers to play tricks with perception, whether simulating a housewife's concussive state in "The Headless Woman" (2008) or plunging us into a teenager's religious confusion in "The Holy Girl" (2004). Bubbling beneath those stories was an instinctive sense of class rage, which makes her a natural fit for the more remote injustices of "Zama."
As played by Giménez Cacho, a Spanish-born Mexican actor with a limitless range of outraged, dyspeptic reaction shots, Zama may be a figure of ridicule, but his futility is not without a certain pathos. In the opening image, he stands on a beach, a sword at his belt and a tricorn hat on his head, affecting a ludicrous, would-be heroic pose. The wry, distanced framing of the shot (by the gifted Portuguese cinematographer Rui Poças) all but mocks his delusions of grandeur. The rest of the movie will lay waste to them, one by one.
The first half plays like a Beckettian comedy of bureaucratic limbo. Looking sweaty and uncomfortable in his not-so-finery and an ill-advised wig, Zama repeatedly pleads with the local governor (Daniel Veronese) to write a letter to the king and secure his transfer. He hears the occasional case and renders arbitrary verdicts, most of them in line with official orders. But in general he just waits and waits, every scene compounding the indignity of his existence.
Zama is forever being ignored by his superiors, thwarted by his colleagues and maddeningly rebuffed by Luciana (played with teasing wit by Dueñas, best known for her work with one of "Zama's" co-producers, Pedro Almodóvar). He tries to navigate a system that slights him at every turn, but which is even more obviously rigged against the poor and oppressed in his midst. And despite his haughty declaration of an exclusive preference for Spanish flesh, he visits Emilia (Maria Etelvina Peredez), a quietly scornful Guaraní woman with whom he has had a child, a boy he doesn't even recognize.
Colonialism is a moral blight, but it is also an ugly, messy, disorderly business. Martel doesn't just march Zama through a series of humiliations; she undermines his stature in every shot, often positioning him off to the side or in the background, as if to suggest that he's a marginal presence in his own story. He is crowded out of the frame by slaves, who are present in nearly every interior scene, and by the animals wandering freely about, none more scene-stealing than a llama who adds hilarious insult to his injury.
The severity of the framing can seem at first like a distortion of reality, much like the wild, teeming soundscape, alive with buzzing insects, cawing birds, giggling children and distant gunshots. (The sound designer is Guido Berenblum.) But give yourself some time to adjust and Martel's style, at once immersive and disorienting, starts to feel like a corrective, a clearer way of seeing and hearing. The physical world here is not some abstract commodity; it is fiercely, palpably present, and utterly indifferent to the whims of men arrogant enough to think they can tame it into submission.
That folly achieves a surreal apotheosis in the movie's final passages, in which the displaced and increasingly desperate Zama is sent on a dangerous mission to capture a presumed enemy of the empire. Martel has never been one for simple pictorial beauty, but here her chiseled, exacting imagery turns rapturous almost in spite of itself. Juxtaposing hues of painterly green and devilish red, she brings "Zama" to a lyrical, terrifying close worthy of Werner Herzog or Joseph Conrad. The grand dream of human conquest ends, as it must, with a nightmarish descent into madness.
(In Spanish, Qom, Pilagá and Mbyá Guaraní with English subtitles)
Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes
Playing: Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena, and Laemmle's Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles