‘Zama’ Review: Lucrecia Martel’s Challenging, Brilliant Colonial Drama

For a film set expressly in the 18th century, the end of the world feels surprisingly nigh in “Zama” — but if we accept “colonial dystopia” as a viable atmosphere, it’s hard to image any filmmaker conjuring it better than Argentinian master Lucrecia Martel. Insect song swarms and summer colors practically rot on screen in this feverish adaptation of her compatriot Antonio Di Benedetto’s classic 1956 novel, as a Spanish crown officer’s exasperated wait for a royal transfer from his lowly South American posting spirals out into a full-blown tropical malady.

Perplexing and intoxicating in equal measure, “Zama” is undeniably challenging in its adherence to a mannered, densely narrated literary source: As storytelling, it makes Martel’s last feature, the brilliantly opaque “The Headless Woman,” look like Agatha Christie. But it honors Di Benedetto’s work by strictly cinematic means, and to formally mesmerizing effect: The frustrating nine-year wait for new material from Martel has done nothing to blunt her exquisite, inventive command of sound and image, nor her knack for subtly violent exposure of social and racial prejudice on the upper rungs of the class ladder.

Commercially, “Zama” couldn’t be a much tougher sell. Given its unjust placement in a non-competition slot at Venice, perhaps even festival programmers see the film as an alternative curiosity, though adventurous distributors will surely recognize its major artistic heft and prestige — particularly with Di Benedetto’s novel enjoying something of a rebirth following its first English-language translation, 60 years after its initial publication. Whatever its future beyond the festival circuit, “Zama” is sure to intensify the fervent cult of admiration for Martel’s immaculate oeuvre; one can only hope for a swifter follow-up to this painstaking, delay-plagued multinational project. (A whopping 16 production companies are listed upfront, with…

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