2018 marked our first full year in the Me Too era and masculinity’s grand inquisition is going strong. The conversation has not only been about issues of consent, abuse of power, and sexual harassment. We are also in the midst of a deeper discourse about the drawbacks and complications of manhood itself; about what masculinity means and how it can aspire to be something better and healthier than it has been in its past. 2018 saw a number of films wrestle with the issue of toxic masculinity, male ego, and the way men process emotion. Damian Chazelle’s First Man did it with moody curiosity. Chloe Zhao’s The Rider took on standards of masculinity with gently heqrtbreaking empathy. Lee Chang-dong’s Burning examined male jealousy with enigmatic intensity. But of all these, Argentinian director Lucretia Martel’s 18th century period film Zama may have given manhood its most thoroughly merciless autopsy. Zama is a historical film and a bone dry satire of Spanish Colonialism and all the prideful, insecure chauvinism that imposing your will on an entire country entails. In a sense, it is also the year’s most sweeping takedown of toxic masculinity, for it is not just about the entitled posturing of its title character, but of an entire nation. With surgical remove, Lucretia Martel uses her camera to puncture and eviscerate the notions of what makes a strong, respectable man, individually and as a larger society. In the story of a 1700s Spanish magistrate abroad in Uruguay striving and failing to get a transfer out a rural backwater village, Martel is using the lens of Spanish Colonialism, one of history’s most egregious acts of patriarchal aggression, to fashion a rigorous critique of male peacocking. These officious men of the Spanish Crown, made up in their finery and appointed with important titles, are impotent and lost in a Hell of patriarchal society’s own making. They have been summoned to forcefully impose Europe’s laws and ideals on a country that never asked for them and they are inevitably doomed to fall short of the imperial expectations foisted upon them.
Our first look at our protagonist, Don Diego de Zama, winks at more romantic visions of colonialism and the Age of Exploration. Zama is standing on some shore, sharply dressed in a burgundy coat and tricorne hat, gazing out across the water, waiting for a ship to come in. He seems almost proudly posed, like some statue or Renaissance painting of a famous explorer. What we soon learn is that he has been awaiting this ship’s arrival for years. It is the ship that will take him away from the remote jungle boondocks where he serves his function. For years and years, Zama has acted as the local magistrate for a small colonial outpost, somewhere deep in the muggy jungles of Uruguay. He has long since stopped feeling any particular sense of swelling pride for his position. He goes about his duties with rote, bored resignation. “A functionary,” he dubs himself with weary self-loathing. Whatever ego he may have initially had about serving Spain has long since evaporated in the stifling heat, and what remains is an exhausted feeling of Sisyphean obligation. His days are taken up with the drudgery of petty theft cases, property (read: slavery) disputes, and sometimes making burial arrangements for the odd cholera death. He feels no greater purpose. All he wants is to finally be transferred to a city, where can be with his wife and child and where he can experience some modest portion of the trappings of Western civilization. Zama is not what you would call a plot-driven film. It is quite crucial that not much happens, that Zama remain forever stuck in place. Zama is a satirical character study and the very essence of Zama’s arc is that nothing ever moves forward for him. In the rare occasions where it looks like he might come closer to getting something he wants, it is always quickly yanked away from him. Nothing happens in this sweltering river town where his own country has buried him. He is consistently thwarted, not only in his futile attempts to be freed from this miserable post, but in every other effort to feel like a dignified, self-actualized man. His attempts to become intimate with one of the only Spanish women in town come to nothing. His young assistant undermines him and mocks his lame attempts at gravitas. Having just been choked by Zama for being impudent, the underling smiles and sarcastically exclaims, “Such bravura!” The superiors Zama appeals to ignore his requests. Instead, he gets moved from his relatively nice house to a dilapidated, termite-ridden hovel. Finally, after many more years of limbo, Zama volunteers himself for a bounty mission, hoping to earn some brownie points to support his transfer. The mission is to hunt down an infamous, murderous outlaw named Vicuna Porto, a man the Spanish government claims to have already executed but who seems to always come back to life. Like the rest of the film, this final act is about grappling with the myths of manly strength and coming to see how fundamentally hollow they are. The courageous band of colonial conquerors set out to kill the most feared man in South America and bring glory to Spain. In the end, what dies out there in the jungle is the myth of machismo; of bending the world to your whim with a sword and an adventurer’s spirit. Lucretia Martel is declaring that this is not how the world works, though it may sadly be how men work.
Martel’s meticulously observant historical film is a razor sharp dissection of the folly of Colonialism and all its dubious lore. In his tricorne and tailored coat, looking out over the water, Zama momentarily assumes the image of Columbus, Cortez, or Pizarro. Brazen men of action, eager to find what is just over the horizon. The cruel joke is that Zama is not called to any bold action and he knows he is not going anywhere. Hell, this isn’t even the sea. It’s just some anonymous river. Zama’s horizon will never change. In drawing a sharp dagger on white exploration and exploitation, Martel keenly grasps something crucial to the whole explorer mythos: forward motion. Relentless forward motion. Martel uses Zama to judge centuries of colonial rape and she comes up with a devilishly ironic sentence for her hapless colonial surrogate. In selecting Zama as Colonialism’s whipping boy, she condemns him to the thing that is most anathema to exploration: perpetual stasis. If the key narrative elements of empire-building are bravery and adventure, Martel replaces them with ineffectual cowardice and drudgery. Martel attacks Colonialism but she also reserves a muted, sad kind of feeling for Zama. I am unsure what to call that feeling. It is definitely not sympathy. It is not really empathy either. It is simply that Martel allows a kind of pathos to hang over Zama like a tattered, muddy coat. Zama is justifiably punished for his acquiescence to, and participation in, an immoral system. But the sad thing is that he no longer believes in any of it. Clearly, he ignorantly bought into colonial conquest when he was an opportunistic young man, but those days are far away. Now he hears the termites in the walls. That pathos enriches the film, but Martel also refuses to let her protagonist off the hook. It is the very point of the film that this ineffectual, frustrated bureaucrat be eternally on the hook. Zama is the hook. Martel’s film is divine retribution for the sins of European exploration, all of it heaped upon one unfortunate man. Don Diego de Zama has learned too late that being the oppressor’s errand boy is hard work. Tedious, fruitless, soul-sucking work.
I am cautious to say this but Zama is, at its heart, a kind of comedy. I do not want to create a false expectation here. It is quite unlikely that you will laugh during Zama. I do not believe that I ever did, at least not audibly. But the film is darkly, absurdly humorous for how feeble and trapped this emasculated fool is. Much of that humor comes from Daniel Gimenez Cacho’s sharp, subtle performance. His every weary, embarrassed facial expression betrays the losing battle he is fighting in his soul. The gleaming legacy he thought he signed up to defend and the steaming pile of bureaucratic llama dung he has found in its place. Zama’s eyes wince with the struggle of holding onto some shred of self-worth, but the universe just laughs and cocks its fist back again. There is a pained expression on his face whenever someone mistakenly thinks he can protect them, vindicate them, or make them whole in any way. When he is somehow mistaken for that great man from the film’s first shot. It would be one thing if he could just call his dignity dead forever and move on. But the slow death of his pride is never over because he is never done meeting people who haven’t yet learned how impotent he is. He never runs out of new faces to disappoint. Spain has sold Zama a tremendous bill of goods, and now they won’t even let him do his pointless, unfulfilling job in an actual city. When I call Zama a comedy, I mean the humiliating kind; the comedy of watching someone have dignity continually stripped away from them. Zama is really only a few centuries and a Spanish accent removed from Milton in Office Space. If staplers existed in the 1700s, you can bet Zama would be the one man in the whole Spanish government who never got to have one. Beyond its pointed critiques of Colonialism,!Zama is also just about the timeless ordeal of having a shitty, thankless job. Some of us work retail and have to deal with obnoxious customers and some of us have to live on the muggy outskirts of civilization performing mundane administrative work for brutal hegemonies. It’s a living! Zama is something rather novel and ingenious: the period piece as deadpan workplace satire.
What makes Zama such a fine cinematic achievement isn’t just its subdued wit or its gift for subtle social critique. Lucretia Martel has also made something impressively sensory to complement her ideas. Zama’s score is a mélange of traditional Spanish guitar songs and low, sinister drones that convey the sweaty, dusty, malingering tedium of Zama’s sedentary plight. Her visuals wryly underline the absurdity of these Spaniards imposing their will on this place that does not want them. Spaces feel hot and claustrophobic. Zama moves through them like a shiftless, irritated ghost. These faces all look bored and sticky. The hot days feel like they go on forever. The only cool place in the entire outpost is the room where they store corpses before burial, for understandable reasons. Zama speaks in hushed, romantic tones about one day seeing snow again. The humid, fetid natural world threatens to swallow up these vain little wooden dwellings. For all of Spain’s pomp and circumstance, they have no real control over this place. Horses and llamas wander nonchalantly through sitting rooms and government offices. At a critical moment of cowardice, a horse turns to Zama and looks at him with what can only be judgmental disappointment. Nature has no regard for these pathetic colonial interlopers. Zama presents Colonialism less as a blight on the land than as something absurd, ephemeral and doomed. Martel is not weeping for Uruguay. Uruguay will be fine. Instead, she is cackling in righteous fury at the folly of a society that thinks it can force itself upon another land. The land is eternal and it has sucked Don Diego de Zama in like quicksand. It does not want him but it also doesn’t feel like releasing him yet. The only cool place is the crypt. Zama’s only release may be death.
And after a second viewing, I think death is maybe what Zama longs for. If not for himself, he at least wants everything he represents to breathe its last, Colonialism, manifest destiny, Spain, the arbitrary modes of masculine decorum, this cursed magistrate job. The very idea that any of this is doing any good for anyone. Zama is a coward. He fears death coming to him. But at an abstract level, I think he realizes what a relief it would if this toxic patriarchal system and his role within it just went away. If nobody, oppressor or oppressed, had to act out this tired play ever again. His tired eyes finally see the inane artifice of it all. Face to face with the fearsome Vicuna Porto, Zama recants all of it. Porto mockingly calls him “corregidor”, a reference to his title. It also literally means one who makes things correct. Zama flatly replies back, “I’m not the corregidor.” The title, with its evocations of justice, righteousness and strength, is a hollow lie. Sometimes myths outlive their purpose and need to die. Lucretia Martel gives Colonialism, noble conquest, and toxic masculinity the ego death they deserve. She condemns them, carries out the sentence, and buries them in a shared grave. It doesn’t matter what takes their place. When chauvinism, exploitation and greed are your societal foundations, tearing that system down is the most merciful course of action. For everyone involved.