What Is Inside Is Also Outside: The (Un)familiar World of Zama
Don Diego de Zama (right) inhabits one of many cramped frames, as the interior is sonically besieged by the exterior
Lucretia Martel’s Zama (2017) is a meditation on the horrors of waiting–for a promotion, for sex, for glory, for death. Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is little more than a spectator in his own journey. We wait by his side for anything to happen, suffering for no good reason, as our bodies converge and descend into a humid hell characterized by absurdity and unfamiliarity. We watch and feel with our eyes but derive no pleasure from this twisted voyeurism. Zama is a fever dream, a colorful palette of varied tones and textures married to an exquisite and uncanny soundscape, but it is also a nightmare, a colonial ghost story. Martel seeks to make so much unfamiliar to us: senses, bodies, histories. In her ambitions, she has created a cinematic world that uniquely orients the spectator inside of it. The mood, atmosphere, and body of the film reward an embodied experience of watching and feeling, particularly through the methodical sonic design and framing. Zama, unlikable as he is, demands our sympathies, and thus we all become complicit in this colonial project.
The world of Zama lends itself to a phenomenological description; how we feel and experience the film in relation to our bodies is what results in such a visceral experience. Theoretically speaking, these feelings outweigh any traditional interpretation or reflection. What we must focus on, then, is pre-reflective: experiencing the film without a thought, responding to it almost by force of habit. Phenomenological theorist Vivian Sobchack reminds us that “the film experience is meaningful not to the side of our bodies but because of our bodies. Which is to say that movies provoke in us the ‘carnal thoughts’ that ground and inform more conscious analysis” (60). This is the cinema of bodies, one that creates a world, a mood, an atmosphere that is visually complex and symbolically consistent. The film becomes alive simply because we watch it. I aim to explore how Zama is rendered by the embodied experience, and how we are forced to reckon with the world of the film we are invited to inhabit.
Martel’s frame is riddled with bodies. She commits a sort of cinematic violence against them. Crowded rooms translate to decapitated heads and freedom of movement is often reserved for non-human forms. It feels intense and claustrophobic, bleeding into paranoia. Someone is always in the background or in the off-screen, watching even if we cannot see them. In a particularly memorable scene, Zama learns he will not be granted his long-awaited transfer to Lerma. Zama sits in the foreground, in a medium close-up that feels a little too close for comfort. As he receives the news, a llama wanders into and out of the frame at its leisure. It is both uncanny and comedic—the llama teaches us how to read the film’s spaces; we immediately pay attention to the background of the frame, the margins and deep space. Cinema uses structures of direct experience, “the ‘centering’ and bodily situating of existence in relation to the world of objects and others as the basis for the structures of its language” (Sobchack 5). We are immediately and thoughtlessly attuned to the language of this world, one in which power is furiously de-framed.
What makes the body and world of Zama feel so lived in is the simultaneous framing of certain scenes and the frame-lessness of its intense aural soundscape. We always get the impression that something lurks beyond, whether that be because we hear it and cannot see it, or because we can only see a fraction of it. To be a cinematic world is to keep parts hidden and still express itself as a whole. This goes hand in hand with cinematic mood: “it is not simply a subjective experience or a private state of mind; it describes, rather, how a (fictional) world is expressed or disclosed via a shared affective attunement orienting the spectator within that world” (Sinnerbrink 148). It is the sum of all parts. Spectator and film converge.
This attunement is first exemplified in the pre-opening credit scene. Zama encounters an indigenous prisoner who is to be punished for some unspecified crime. The setting is disheveled and naturalistic: the Spaniards and enslaved men alike appear unkempt, and I first feel how very warm it is, how damp the texture of the film feels. The dialogue is accompanied by multiple repetitive ambient sounds: someone hammers on a roof or a building, a horse is neighing, and the cicadas are screaming. With this ambience comes anxiety—I hear the outside inside, and the lines begin to blur. Then, the prisoner tells a fable that feels more surreal than naturalistic. He describes a fish that is constantly being thrown out of the river, forcibly rejected by the element that sustains its very life. As the prisoner tells this tale, he is offscreen, and instead we see Zama’s face. He is in the foreground of the frame staring down at the prisoner, but as he continues his story, Zama quickly glances at the offscreen. The title appears over murky water and we hear the first use of non-diegetic sound, the 1950s Brazilian guitar pop duo Los Indios
Tabajaras. The beachy, tropical tones mix with the thrashing, violent water as we see the very fish the prisoner posits. I feel the texture of the water and the inability to breathe evenly. It isn’t that we identify with the fish, but that our body is reacting to the film. There is no depth of field in the water. It is inescapable, a fitting prologue for the film that follows.
Zama continues for two-thirds of the runtime to throw its titular character out of the water, barely breathing, as he fails to secure the transfer to Lerma he so desperately desires. He fails to seduce both wealthy Spanish and native women alike. He fails to pass as Spanish himself. Everything seems to tease him, including us—there is a dark humor in his suffering, but because we are so ingrained in his journey, we also sympathize. I am not sure I could exist in the world of Zama, either, one in which the longer you stay put, the more foreign you are. Waiting.
This collective waiting is best characterized by the repeated motif of Shepard tones at pivotal moments. This achieves a kind of closeness with the audience, phenomenological in its essence, as we are drawn in by the deceptive nature of the sound in its endless descent. The first appearance (per say) of this sound occurs near the beginning of the film as a young child is carried in a chair on the backs of enslaved indigenous people. He speaks, ‘Don Diego de Zama…a god that cannot die…solitude is atrocious.’ It is unclear if the boy is actually saying this or if Zama is imagining it. In writing about the Shepard’s tone in Zama, Eleonora Rapan asks “Is this sound a kind of a sonic labyrinth that entraps Zama and us in this time beyond time?” (Rapan 139). I am inclined to say yes—the tones work to realize this reality of waiting and being stuck in a purgatory of your own making. The first time I heard it, I slowly sunk back into my seat with a hypnotic affect. As the sound is repeated throughout the film, it becomes more and more apparent that Zama is resigned to his fate. The tones are what Sinnerbrink describes as “episodic moods,” recurring in the manner that they sustain particular moods, such as the dread that comes with Zama’s sustained purgatory (Sinnerbrink 157). Sound can also be a tool to access our other senses in relation to the film. Remember that phenomenology prioritizes the whole; this includes the senses, and how they work together. Sobchack writes that “synesthetes regularly, vividly, and automatically perceive sound as color or shapes as tastes. One woman explains, ‘I most often see sound as colors, with a certain sense of pressure on my skin. . . . I am seeing, but not with my eyes, if that makes sense’ ” (Sobchack 67). I am no synesthete, but this tool is helpful to understanding our embodiment in relation to film—I see deep reds and lush greens when listening to Zama, I taste blood in my mouth. These horrors are embedded in the soundscape.
The search party finds itself encircled and overwhelmed by an elusive indigenous force
The acoustic environment and frame of the film drastically change as we reach the last half-hour of Zama. Having grown a beard after an unspecified amount of time, Zama joins a group of men to hunt down and kill Vicuña Porto. Porto has been a central figure throughout the film despite his absence; he is known as the vilest criminal in all the land who rapes and robs whenever he pleases. Many have claimed to catch him, and you start to wonder if there was ever a man behind the myth—or if this entire last segment of the film is something going on in Zama’s head. Furthermore, Martel opens up space for what feels like the first time. We see wide
open landscapes with vivid color and never-ending horizons. Bodies are no longer cut by the frame, but dwarfed by it, feeling small. The orchestra of ambient sound shifts, now feeling more messy than precise. During a scene where the group is attacked by an indigenous tribe, the Mbayá, the roars of the cicadas seem to be “Shepardised,” resembling the tones from earlier in a surreal kind of way (Rapan 140). The sounds of nature are torn apart and distorted as we get our first real taste of the outside. The Mbayá are painted red and ride on stolen horses and during the attack they seem to move faster than time should allow. We are whisked away from any semblance of the unfamiliar world we have gotten used to, and the effect is visceral. The cicadas scream what I feel.
Though this shift in atmosphere enacts some changes in the affective relationship, the through line in Zama is one of a profound boredom. Chiara Quaranta writes about cinema and its relationship to boredom as a phenomenological tool:
The understanding of boredom as an aesthetic category requires us to transform our conception of the film medium and experience, positioning ourselves so as to allow boredom to remain awake. That is to say, to deliberately permit the ‘being left empty’ and ‘being held in a limbo’ aroused by certain films, instead of attempting to escape boredom through mainstream entertainment cinema.
In a film that kills time, we need only focus on how we feel in the moment and the reactions that are built within us. Quaranta mainly focuses on the uses of boredom to combat the fast-paced blockbusters of the now, but I am thinking about boredom built into the language of Zama and the effect it has on us. There is very little camera movement throughout the film. Martel, rather, employs long takes and stagnant frames: the movement occurs within these shots. There is an immediate reaction to a headless body, yes, but there is also time to contemplate after. This is what Sobchack means when she says that our carnal thoughts inform a more rigorous and complex analysis. Zama is rewarding after you have had a few days to sit with it. The intuitive, bodily feelings I experience inform a later interpretation, which is something unique to Martel’s cinema.
Zama has an aspect of reversibility with the audience that is integral to its ultimate thesis on colonialism. We ultimately identify with Zama (as Martel does) in that we are an alien in this world. Indoor spaces are imposed on a natural world and indigenous people are removed from the frame. It perfectly captures the fragility of the colonial project and the paranoia that comes along with that. As subjugated as the indigenous people are in this film, they are the only folks that seem comfortable living in this strange, timeless place. We will never shake the feeling that we do not belong, and even as Martel makes it so very easy for us to fall into the world, it is not something we will revel in. Zama’s hell is incessant and interminable. So too is the violent framing of our world rendered by colonialism and imperialism.
Rapan, Eleonora. “Shepard Tones and Prooduction of Meaning in Recent Films: Lucretia Martel’s Zama and Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk.” The New Soundtrack, vol. 8, no. 2, 2018, pp. 135-144.
Sinnerbrink, Robert. “Stimmung: exploring the aesthetics of mood.” Screen vol. 53, no. 2, 2012, pp. 148-163.
Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. University of California Press, 2004.
Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye: A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton University Press, 1992, pp. 3-27.
Quaranta, Chiara. “A Cinema of Boredom: Heidegger, Cinematic Time and Spectatorship.” Film-Philosophy, vol. 24, no. 1. Edinburgh University Press, 2020, https://www.euppublishing.com/doi/full/10.3366/film.2020.0126.