A Life on the Edge

ZAMA (15)  2017 Argentina 115mins, directed by Lucrecia Martel, based on the novel by Antonio de Benedetto, with Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Matheus Nachtergaele.

The film of Zama, based on Antonio de Benedetto’s novel, Zama, from 1956 (which has had to wait until as recently as 2016 for an English translation), seems to want to wade into that Philosophical conundrum (much in vogue in the era of the book, the 50s) called Absurdism (the Albert Camus flavour) or Existentialism (Jean Paul Satre) ideas which found their best, and in a way, most enduring expression in drama, works by such as Beckett, Pinter or Ionesco, dramatists interested in the boundaries between two contrasting ideas or places or things, between, for example, the actor and the role, the play and reality, meaning and the utterly futile search for meaning, communism and capitalism, West Berlin and East Berlin, the East and the West, developed nations and undeveloped nations, nuclear catastrophe and its opposite and, as in Zama, civilisation and, supposedly, the primitive or barbaric. What really matters are the edges, where things meet. Is it a hard edge? Or are the lines a little blurry?

The eponymous Don Diego de Zama is a Spanish functionary in colonial South America, a magistrate, posted to a Sixteenth Century frontier town (like Asuncion in Paraguay for instance), but is awaiting, somewhat desperately, a transfer to somewhere more Spanish, more civilised. The town where he waits is balanced precariously, as is Don Diego, on the edge, on the boundary, between the Spanish and the American, the European and the indigenous, the civilised and the not, the known and the unknown. Don Diego has a foot in both camps. He is seen to be sympathetic, perhaps expressing his own ambivalence as to sides, to a family of Indians who are anxious to make the transition to being seen as Spanish, progressing from slave owners rather than slaves. This sympathy, expressed officially in his magisterial persona, doesn’t endear him to his ambitious assistant, who is clear-eyed, even cruel, about boundaries and rules.

England, too, was a colonial power and it’s easy to forget, when you are ensconced in the capital, at the centre of all that is cultured, sophisticated and urbane, that out there on the edges are people who are managing a quite different set of challenges. This was my own experience, growing up in a town in Northern Australia, a town with a substantial aboriginal population, fringe dwellers, fundamentally mysterious, the other, an ongoing source of profound shame.

This film expressed, to me at least, beautifully, unflinchingly, that terrible uncertainty found at the edge. It’s like teetering on Stephen Hawking’s singularity, just before the point where all is drawn irrevocably into destruction and horror, Joseph Conrad via Frances Ford Coppola. See? I can’t help but make literary allusions, to try to avoid thinking, writing about the fact that I couldn’t face that reality; that I too, as Don Diego wishes he could, ran, as far and as fast as possible towards the centre of civilisation, away from what I couldn’t understand. Don Diego’s journey, ultimately, is in the other direction, towards the unknown, towards chaos, towards, ultimately, a kind of peace. And it’s certainly not without pain.

Some twenty years after this book was published, in 1976, Antonio de Benedetto was caught up in the Argentine ‘Dirty War’, the period when the military junta caused to disappear something in the region of 30,000 people. Antonio de Benedetto was imprisoned and tortured and though he survived, it is instructive to think that his sense that in the indigenous lay the light, the peace, all that was good, and in civilisation lay the darkness, that he would experience this truth first hand.

It’s easy to glibly, blithely assume the best of civilisation, that we, the modern, are somehow an advance on so-called primitive society. And in lots of ways, we are. But not in every way. The difference lies in how we think about ourselves, our individual selves. There is something grimly funny, horrifyingly humorous, about the way Don Diego loses everything that marks him out as a civilised, sophisticated Spanish gentleman, until he loses even that which means he can fend for himself, help himself. He becomes dependent on an utterly different kind of human existence, a life connected to something other, individuality submerged, erased.

Somehow the end of those boundaries of the mind, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the triumph of the market, has driven us inward, to the idea that, as Lionel Shriver has it: ‘in the 80s pop psychology promoted the shibboleth, “you can’t argue with what people feel.”’ As consumers we have only our feelings to guide us.

Thus a world without boundaries, or edges, without those conflicting, clashing opposites, without colour or striving or the never-ending struggle to push the rock back up the hill. Just the certainty of our inner lives, which isolates and segregates, which disconnects.

Zama is a fairly astringent antidote to this kind of lazy thinking, to this life in the comfortable centre, away from the arguments and conflicts of the edges, of the boundaries. Or am I seeing in this film just what I want to see, an interpretation that fits just my own prejudices and experience? I hope not, because as unwilling as this film is to compromise, it is worth every funny, and every shocking, moment.

Paul Corcoran.