WE all know a modern midlife crisis when we see one – whether it arrives in the form of a brand-new flashy car or an equally shiny new love interest.
Acrasia-possessed men doing anything to keep the flickers of their youthful masculine energy – perhaps being smothered by dissatisfaction in the workplace or the bedroom – from its inevitable dimming into old age.
Lucrecia Martel’s film, Zama, shows the timelessness of such a male crisis as we venture back to a remote South American colony in the late 18th century.
Zama (played by the excellent Daniel Giménez Cacho, whose face has many levels of slumping weariness) is an officer of the Spanish crown. Plagued by inaction, the days slip through his desperate fingers as he awaits signed permission to transfer to the more prestigious city of Lerman.
Days quickly turn to years – and Zama’s powerless drifting plunges him into further crisis. This is a midlife crisis without the money to buy a Ferrari or the allure to attract a new partner.
The corrupted seeds from Zama’s pit of stagnation have already sprouted by the start of the film. He creeps behind rocks to spy on a group of naked natives, only to be called out and chased for his voyeurism. Zama responds with violence – one of the few exercises of authority, albeit an unimpressive one, that the relatively hapless Zama shows in the entire film.
Later this sexual frustration leads Zama to go against his better judgments as he tries to instigate a relationship with the flirtatious and independent Treasury Minister’s wife. This time his pursuit ends with even more of a whimper than his brush with the native women.
One scene between the two is marked by the dull repetition of a squeaky room fan (credit to the brilliant work of sound designer Guido Berenblum throughout the film). A sound to summarise the uneasiness, boredom and anxiety of Zama’s life with his inner madness only escalating from the hallucinations he suffers at the beginning of the film.
Zama’s own inner decaying is later mirrored by a gothic nightmare he is forced to inhabit. Rotting walls, flies, sweaty illness and cackling women all await. Years have passed and still there is no sign of his desired signature. It is ultimately a peculiar and frustrating existence for Zama, his life corroded away by unsympathetic bureaucracy, failing health and sexual impotency before he finally decides to take a leap of faith in the final desperate, bloody throes of the film.
Martel’s portrait of a middle-aged male crisis is a disorientating one. A few parallels could be drawn with the Charlie Kaufman films Anomalisa and Synecdoche, New York, although where Kaufman fully submerges us into a labyrinth of turmoil, Martel’s is happy passively floating on the uneasy surface.
Zama is by no means wasted time – it is an atmospheric and distressing study of inner crisis. Certainly not one for the restless minded.