But why would Martel turn to Di Benedetto for such an avant-garde project? The answer lies in her attraction to the existential crisis at the center of the novel. Dedicated to the “victims of expectation,” it recounts Don Diego’s spiritual breakdown in systematic, Dostoevskian fashion. Like Raskolnikov from Crime and Punishment or Ivan from The Brothers Karamazov, Don Diego suffers helplessly as larger systems of meaning fail. But where Dostoevsky’s characters operate against the backdrop of divine grace, Zama offers its protagonist no theological possibility of redemption: God, as Don Diego imagines him, is lonely, angry, and malevolent, nothing more than “an old man with white hair and beard, sitting on a rock in fatigued contemplation of a mute universe.”
If the breakdown of religious certainty ensnares Di Benedetto’s Don Diego in a cycle of frenetic despair, for Martel this same disruption creates new opportunities and freedoms. Now an admitted atheist, Martel grew up a fervent Catholic. In an interview she reveals that as she entered adulthood, her earlier piety gave way to a sudden, intense skepticism. She explains that this “divine abandonment” was hardly “sad or paralyzing” but instead “immense and marvelous.” Paradoxically, her loss of faith enabled a deeper appreciation of the wonder and mystery of the world. In another interview, Martel applies the same logic to Don Diego, equating his spiritual breakdown with a religious journey into the wilderness:
“When you go to the desert—and that’s why the anchorites and the mystics went to the desert—you face that terrible encounter with the universe, especially at night, where darkness allows us to see better. And we are outdoors, without all the inventions with which we have concealed the enormous absurdity of existence, and for that very reason, it’s something wonderful. In my films I try to create the outdoors.”
In this sense, Martel’s Zama traces a theological via negativa (which arrives at the knowledge of God by stating what God is not). It takes us “outdoors,” that is, away from our conventional idols and familiar patterns of thinking. Any breakdown, Martel hints, only seems like the end; in reality, it’s the mysterious start of something new.
Though hardly a mystic and far from a saint, in the film’s final segment Don Diego makes a journey into the wilderness that leaves him physically mutilated but spiritually liberated. Hoping to finally secure his transfer, he enlists with a group of soldiers charged with tracking down and killing Vicuña Porto, a local bandit. The quest instantly devolves into a spectacular failure. Now wizened and frail, Don Diego is captured and tortured by indigenous warriors, and then betrayed by a member of his own group (who turns out to be Vicuña himself). As if mirroring Don Diego’s consciousness, Martel shoots the entire sequence (at over thirty minutes, it feels like a separate film) with dreamlike pacing, now fast and energetic, now slow and bewildering.
The ordeal culminates in the brutal amputation of Don Diego’s forearms, but Martel never strips her protagonist of his personhood. Bloodied, dehydrated, and bound by the neck, he comes to terms with the reality that his hopes for a transfer, like the riches sought by his captors, have always been illusory. He meets it not with despair or even stoic indifference but rather with an almost holy reverence for his shattered life: choosing not to bleed to death, he eventually is rescued by two Guaranís paddling a canoe. Martel again shoots him in close-up, barely alive but beginning to smile as light, festive music plays (the soundtrack features Los Indios Tabajaras, a mid-twentieth-century Brazilian guitar duo). It’s a reversal of the llama scene: Don Diego’s dignity is restored as he affirms, with a scarcely audible gasp, that yes, he wants to live.
Martel likes to call Zama a film with a happy ending. And there is a way in which the loss of certainty and security can be paradoxically productive, even generative of hope. In our time of political division and spiritual confusion, Martel’s cinema offers us a way of reframing what might otherwise seem like pure disaster. The way forward is hardly certain. But as the mystics dear to Martel demonstrate, even dark paths can lead us to freedom. As with Don Diego, it will probably cost us something, maybe even something very dear. Better, though, to enter life maimed than to be thrown into eternal fire.