At first blush. “Zama” is close kin to “Aguirre, the Wrath of God,” the towering 1972 Werner Herzog classic about a Spanish conquistador losing his way and his mind in 16th-century South America. There’s a deluded European colonizer at the new movie’s center, too — Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), an administrative functionary serving the royal court of Spain in the wilds of Paraguay at the tail end of the 18th century. As in “Aguirre,” the tone is detached, the plot minimal, the action cruel, the visuals serene and increasingly phantasmagoric. The jungle seems ready to reclaim the characters at any moment.
If Herzog is a mystic and a shaman, though, Argentina’s Lucrecia Martel is a more hardheaded sort of cinematic poet. Based on her countryman Antonio di Benedetto’s existential 1958 novel of the same name, “Zama” is a political treatise under cover of a dark Kafkaesque comedy. The message is that a colonizer destroys everything he touches but nothing so much as the colonizer himself.
Don Diego isn’t a bad sort for a Western interloper — just a humorless backwater pencil-pusher who’s doing his part to sexually and physically abuse the locals in the name of civilization. Bewigged and beady-eyed, he’s desperate to get back across the Atlantic to his wife and family, but the wife hasn’t written in 14 months and Zama is starting to lose his zeal for keeping the natives in check. As his assistant Ventura (Juan Minujín) starts behaving more like a rival and his landlord’s virtuous daughters sneak men into their bedrooms, Zama’s mask of rectitude slips and with it his grasp on reality.
Martel is a rare but fearsome presence on the US art-house scene, with films like “The Holy Girl” (2008) and “The Headless Woman” (2008) that have puzzled and divided audiences. Her penchants for nonlinear narrative and off-kilter but blisteringly confident visuals make her work daunting for newcomers, but they have an inner logic and an urgency that propels them forward.
“Zama” can be at times bafflingly oblique, to the point where an event might happen just outside the camera frame without Martel bothering to show it to the audience. But the film also has the pleasures of a good deadpan historical farce — including the lilting Hawaiian music that taunts the characters on the soundtrack — and everything in it tends toward a point. Those shots isolated from the action reflect a conquering bureaucracy’s focus only on what’s in front of it and only on what it can understand.
The title character’s decline and fall is rendered in three phases, separated in the novel by several years and in the movie by changing facial hair. In the first, Zama tries to fire up an affair with the elegant wife (Lola Dueñas) of a local official; it doesn’t go well. In the second, his duties and belongings are chipped away, piece by humiliating piece, by a new governor (Daniel Veronese) whose rules and instructions change with spite or whimsy or both.
The third and most eerie section sees a down-on-his-luck Zama join an expedition to capture the marauding bandit Vicuña Porto, who may be as real or as illusory as the dread Pirate Roberts from “The Princess Bride.” Here is where “Zama” starts overlapping in image and fury with “Aguirre,” as the expedition passes an army of the blind in the night and weathers an assault by a red-painted band of natives before running aground on mutual accusations of treachery.
The final shots are both majestic and damning, and they lift the film with a kind of gentle contempt into a surrealism that makes an awful kind of sense, the world in its lushness swallowing Zama as it will swallow us all. Some movies unfold as dreams; “Zama” dances us playfully toward the edge of nightmare and then asks us to open our eyes.
Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel, based on a novel by Antonio di Benedetto. Starring Daniel Giménez Cacho, Lola Dueñas, Juan Minujín. At Brattle. 115 minutes. In Spanish, with subtitles.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.