No But Listen: Zama

Happy Friday! Let’s yell a little on the internet. This month, we’re taking a look at Zama, an Argentine period drama by acclaimed Argentinian director Lucrecia Martel, adapted from a 1956 book of the same name by Antonio de Bendetto. Acclaimed by critics but receiving some heavily mixed audience reviews, Zama is ripe for a deconstruction. Good? Bad? A pretentious, boring mess or a compellingly dense satire of colonialism? On to the article!

For

Look, I’m the first one to come out against a movie for being pointlessly pretentious and ambulatory. If I could sear Drive out from our collective recollection, I would. I love challenging movies, but the line between “boundary-pushing” and “fucking pointless” is exceptionally thin and I’m exceptionally sensitive to it. So, really, if anyone should be on the other side of this debate, it should be me. And yet.

On a granular level, I found Zama a joy to watch. No matter which way you slice it, Lucrecia Martel has pulled off a spectacular and singular technical achievment with Zama. Every detail is accounted for, from the inimitable, woozy sound design to those deep frames and lingering shots that encourage you to look closer, go deeper. The performances (especially Matheus Nachtergaele) are uniformly excellent, and Zama finds a deft balance between grinding grimness and insightful satire.

By the end of Zama, I felt as though I had spent two hours having a bunch of input shoved into my brain, and now it was up to me to come up with the output. And I understand why that’s so unnappealing to some people. Even if you don’t want your movies handed to you on a plate, it’s rare that I leave the cinema with so little clue of what I just so and yet so completely satisfied in my viewing experience. Ever since the credits rolled, I’ve found myself going over the details, the themes, the characters, trying to fit the pieces of this story together in a way that makes sense, and I love that. It’s a puzzlebox of a film that gives you just enough to work with and then goes “on yourself and figure out the rest”. And, when the story and the themes the movie is trying to convey (a man trapped in the self-made purgatory of colonialism) are so compelling to me, that’s a treat, not a trial.

By Louise MacGregor

Against

I’m completely shocked to be on this side of the argument since Zama is the type of film that usually interests me. While I love cinema’s blow-outs and bluster, I equally love the quieter, more introspective stories, and if those stories take the shape of lauded foreign films that showcase a culture that I’m not familiar with, all the better. Zama hits all of these points. It’s critically acclaimed, with some calling it the best film of this century. It’s about a culture and time in history that I know nothing about. It’s from a reclusive but brilliant director. Yet I found Zama to be completely fucking boring.

I certainly liked some aspects of the film: the cinematography, costumes, and performances, especially Daniel Giménez Cacho in the title role, were all excellent, director Lucrecia Martel was far too successful at putting across the punishing boredom and monotony of Zama waiting for his transfer back to Spain. The film’s dream-like quality, interesting themes, and recurring motifs weren’t enough to stop the threat of a loud snore-filled sleep coming over me, which would have further angered the guy who shushed me for opening my sweeties, the prick.

Zama is a ponderous, almost plotless, momentum-less film that I kept waiting, and waiting, aaaaand waiting for it to click in my mind, but it never did. The running time, which was relatively short at 115 minutes (compared to most blockbusters hitting the two and a half hour mark), felt twice as long and four times as pointless. Perhaps a second viewing will show me its secrets – most film critics have urged viewers to be patient and have their minds opened – and Louise obviously got much more out of the film than I did, but I literally couldn’t think of a bigger waste of my time. As much as Zama could reveal itself to me over time, I can’t ignore how bad an experience it was trying to watch it in the first place. Some films click with you, some films don’t – and Zama, despite my best efforts, didn’t.

By Kevin Boyle

If you enjoyed this review and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting us on Patreon and checking out the rest of our No But Listen articles here!

(header image courtesy of The Student Newspaper)

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