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'Zama' review: A mirage of New World wonder

An eccentric, haunting example of period filmmaking on an extraordinarily well-deployed budget, Argentine filmmaker Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama” arrives Friday for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center. It’s a noteworthy engagement in and of itself, but writer-director Martel will be here, too, leading audience discussions following screenings Sunday and Monday.

This is Martel’s first feature in nearly a decade. Rich and allusive, a unique and slyly comic mirage of colonialism as seen from every perspective, including (at one memorable point) a llama’s, “Zama” arrives in Chicago amid an unusually strong week for film. Make time for this one. But check your expectations of a conventional experience at the door; otherwise, you’ll fight it the whole way.

Martel adapts the 1956 historical novel by Antonio Di Benedetto. It is a novel, and a movie, about waiting. In the late 18th century, a South American-born officer of the Spanish crown finds himself stationed in a coastal colony in the land we now know as Paraguay. He is Don Diego de Zama, played by Daniel Gimenez Cacho, whose penetrating eyes cannot hide his character’s slow-burning realization that his life has not quite gone as planned.

The first, perfectly composed shot crystallizes what’s to come. Martel and the inspired cinematographer Rui Pocas find Zama, in his tricorn hat, at water’s edge, posing as if waiting for the court painter to arrive. Nearby, natives laugh and converse. A few minutes later, we see Zama in the tall grass, trying to stay out of sight while the women rub their bodies in clay. “Voyeur!” one of them shouts, laughing. Zama is a man of authority only by the presence of the hat.

All he wants, really, is to transfer to another post and rejoin his wife and their newborn. The local governor is no help; vague promises of a letter of recommendation come and go. Memories and tales of a recently executed enemy of the state haunt the settlement; the dead man, too, may be hanging around as a ghost. Zama has fathered a child with one of the local women; he’s also attracted to Spanish noblewoman (the superb Lola Duenas), perpetually dipping into some of the exotic brandy recently arrived from the Orient.

Where Zama’s story goes from there matters less as a straightforward narrative and more as a careful accumulation of sound, movement, and ironic but lingering images of colonialism and karmic comeuppance. Martel made “Zama” on a $3.5 million budget, thanks to a phalanx of producers and investors. Her ardent supporters include Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodovar.

“You can feel the heat, the insects, the taste of the liquors, the meanness of bureaucracy,” Almodovar told Indiewire’s Eric Kohn, following the film’s screenings at the Venice and Toronto film festivals. “It’s a smart, atrocious, Kafkaesque tale that delves into the cultures Lucrecia and I belong to.” Martel fills each frame with such a shrewdly considered use of bodies and surroundings, you really do feel as though you’re experiencing one man’s narrowing odyssey in the active present tense. “Zama” is a patient, delicately strange film chronicling an increasingly impatient man and a destiny beyond his control.

Martel will appear at the 4:15 p.m. Sunday and 6:15 p.m. Monday screenings. The Film Center will also present the filmmaker’s first three features, “La Cienaga,” “The Unholy Girl” and “The Headless Woman,” from April 20 through May 1.

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

Twitter @phillipstribune


'Zama' -- 3.5 stars

No MPAA rating (some nudity and violence)

Running time: 1:47

Opens: Friday at the Gene Siskel Film Center, 164 N. State St.; siskelfilmcenter.org.


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