Lucrecia Martel's visually rapturous Zama will conclude UW Cinematheque's March showcase of films co-sponsored by UW-Madison's Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian Studies (LACIS) program. With nods to the surrealistic representation of colonial pasts in films like Jauja (formerly part of LACIS programming in 2015) and Zurlini's Desert Of The Tartars (1976), Martel, returning with her first feature in nine years, adapts Antonio Di Benedetto's famous existential novel about fantasist official Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) in the Asunción empire of late eighteenth century. The titular man, who has served as the magistrate (or corregidor) for the Spanish monarchy for 18 months, yearns for a transfer to Buenos Aires, where he imagines he'll find certain eminence and a reprieve from the feverish heat and sprawling coastal horizons that magnify simultaneous feelings of restlessness and inertia.
Rather than linearly fulfill the promises of that narrative, Martel emphasizes a hypnotic, mystifying obliqueness, making a Kafkaesque study of Zama's bureaucratic obstacles and deteriorating mental capacity. As Zama waits for word from either the Crown or his physically distant wife, the film's slow-burning scenes come to feel as sensual as they do meditative and menacing. In this inscrutable collision, Zama may be most closely aligned with Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath Of God (1972), about conquistadors' failed Peruvian expedition to find El Dorado. Earning high praise from Madison's own film theorist and author Kristin Thompson, Martel's latest stands as one of the most critically celebrated art house entries of the year. —Grant Phipps