Throughout the 27th Annual Whitaker St. Louis International Film Festival (SLIFF), the writers at the Lens will be spotlighting their favorite narrative and documentary films on this year's festival schedule. Each day, our critics will discuss can't-miss festival highlights, foreign gems that have already made an international splash, and smaller cinematic teasures that might have overwise been overlooked – just in time for you to snap up tickets.

It’s unsurprising that the colonists in Lucrecia Martel’s Zama would be in awe of the spider wasp, an insect that hunts arachnids and uses their bodies as hosts for its developing eggs. This metaphor for the Spanish who invade and inhabit a South American territory sometime during the 18th century may seem obvious at first pass, but Martel also extends it to include the film’s central figure, corregidor Don Diego de Zama. Played by Daniel Giménez Cacho, an actor with a such a sculpturally stately profile that it’s all the more satisfying to see it twist in pathetic anguish, Zama is a man whose entitlement and estrangement in a foreign land begins to rupture his futile existence. (Cacho may be familiar to audiences from Bad Education, a 2004 film by Pedro Almodovar, who also has a producing credit here.) These fissures manifest in the aural and visual fantasia that is Martel’s wickedly funny and beguiling film.

Zama begins in medias res as Don Diego sneakily leers at a group of nude indigenous women who then discover and chastise him. Is this an act of perversion or curiosity? Martel purposely withholds narrative information and directorial hand-holding as if to suspend the audience in a dizzying existential crisis similar to the one the protagonist is undergoing. The joke is that as the central figure of this Age of Discovery narrative, Zama is the ineffectual opposite of the strong-willed men in this film’s forebears: Werner Herzog’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God (1972), Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2004). 

In adapting the postmodern novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, the director eschews grandiosity and instead employs surreal comedy of bourgeois hubris à la Luis Buñuel’s The Exterminating Angel (1961). In that film, a sacrificial lamb signals the absurdity of its players’ entrapment. Here, a wandering llama invades the frame and the narrative, as oblivious to the humans’ follies as they are to the animal itself. In addition, much like the dinner party in Buñuel’s apocalyptic missive, Don Diego is perpetually stuck. He vainly attempts to relieve himself of his middle-management post and return to his family in Spain, while also failing miserably to seduce a local courtesan (Lola Dueñas, another Almodovar alum). There’s comic pleasure in watching Zama’s impotent desperation, but as the film boldy shifts from his life of bureaucracy to one of faceless militarism, Martel ratchets up the violence and aggression to deepen her condemnation of the masculine need for conquest and acclaim. 

Throughout the film, however, Martel’s impressionistic, slow-burn approach to filmmaking weaves an entrancing spell. The director’s trademark vertiginous sonic design envelops the viewer in a foreign land and a man’s existential flux, but it also includes the anachronistic 1950s Argentine surf rock that Benedetto was said to enjoy while writing the film’s source novel – a possible nod from the director about the futility of adaptation. Frames decapitate people (Martel did make The Headless Woman [2008], after all), forcing focus on movement, behavior, and environment rather than narrative. The film’s characters often wander around like ghosts – sometimes even appearing as literal specters – in a perfectly realized depiction of burgeoning modernism overtaking the jungle landscape. As wildly adventurous as any eager voyager, Martel is a filmmaker whose all-too-infrequent features –  just four over the past 17 years –  are often niche cause célèbres for cinephiles, but Zama firmly places her as a supreme master of the art, one worthy of widespread attention. 

Zama screens Tuesday, Nov. 6 at 9:00 p.m. and Friday, Nov 9 at 9:30 p.m., both days at the Landmark Plaza Frontenac Cinema.