GFF 2018: Lucrecia Martel makes a triumphant return with a surreal story of a man coming undone
It's been ten years since Argentinean director Lucrecia Martel's last full-length film – the intensely enigmatic The Headless Woman. Her comeback feature takes on Antonio Di Benedetto's 1956 novel, musing on identity, masculinity and legend. Set in the late 18th century, it sees an officer of the Spanish court residing in a remote South American colony, where he suffers one indignity after another as he impatiently awaits transfer to a more civilised locale.
The Spanish-born Mexican actor Daniel Giménez Cacho portrays the magistrate in question Don Diego de Zama with slowly disarming subtlety. He brings pathos to the predicament of a man who's ostensibly an authority figure but in reality is powerless to the whims of others, alienated from peers and natives alike, and brought low by his own weaknesses.
Separated from his wife and children for this unenviable assignment, we first meet Zama gazing wistfully out to sea. Any notion we might get of a romantic dreamer is immediately dashed when we see him spying on a group of local ladies as they bathe in mud; quickly spotted, he's rugby tackled to the ground by one, who he then has the nerve to thrash. An allegiance with a capricious noblewoman (Volver's Lola Dueñas) ends with Zama embarrassingly in her thrall, while a change in governors robs him of his furniture and finds him ousted to a haunted hovel.
Cinematographer Rui Poças, who shot Miguel Gomes's Tabu, does another marvellous job. The film is full of exquisite compositions: it ridicules the Europeans by juxtaposing their ludicrous finery against the ragged, scorching, sometimes treacherous landscapes. In this, it bears comparison to Lisandro Alonso's similarly themed 2014 film Jauja, while there's something of Peter Greenaway's period-set surrealism here too.
Zama's disastrous run of luck has the effect of unpicking his personality and stripping him of his potency. Cleverly drawing on her protagonist's predicament, Martel offers a scathing satire of colonialism as she documents the mental deterioration of a man left hanging, existing on a diet of promises, promises, promises.
Screening on Sun 25 and Mon 26 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2018. Selected release from Fri 25 May.