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NYFF 2017 Highlights: Zama Review

NYFF 2017 Highlights: Zama Review

The first thing one hears, ricocheting through Alice Tully Hall on a Monday evening on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, are the sounds of nature. A lush Paraguayan forest simmers through the theater; cicadas hiss and whisper, wet lapacho leaves rustle, monkeys scream in the distance, water washes over rocks, and Don Diego de Zama stands at a wharf alone. Writer/director Lucrecia Martel is sitting in the wings.

The first page of Zama (1956) by Antonio Di Benedetto contains my favorite line of first person narration in all of literature:

“Nature, as she exists in this country, is most gentle, and for that very reason I’m at pains to keep my distance from her. [...] Nature holds up the mirror of external things; were I to submit to her wiles I might recognize myself there.”

The year is 1790. Meet Zama, a highly placed servant of the Spanish crown who has been assigned to serve the mayor of a remote part of provincial Paraguay while he awaits transfer to Buenos Aires. While he waits, he is consumed by pride, lust, petty grudges, paranoid fantasies, and spends all his time doing pointless or morally corrupt assignments which range from pardoning murderers to assisting novelists who are paid by the crown. His slow moral decline while he waits for a professional success he can’t accept will never happen turns into something like Breaking Bad meets Waiting For Godot meets L’Étranger. The novel is dedicated “A las victimas de la espera.” - to the victims of expectation.

Di Benedetto was a playwright as well as a novelist, and Zama’s spare prose lends itself exceptionally well to film - it reads like a beat sheet, and after its 2016 translation into English by Esther Allen it was primed for an adaptation. Di Benedetto, in 1976, was imprisoned and tortured by Argentina’s military dictatorship, had a subsequent exile in Spain, and then return to Buenos Aires in 1984. Unlike most Paraguayan literature, which would probably be set in Buenos Aires, the capital, Zama’s purgatorial entrapment in a random tiny town and his fury with the ineffective scope of the government are two choices made by Di Benedetto which set Zama apart in the body of Argentinean literature. Evocative of Hieronymous Bosch’s epic triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, Zama is a lush, circuitous novel, whose pleasure is predicated off watching painful coincidences and the fallibility of Zama’s megalomaniacal delusions slowly prevent him from ever being happy. It requires a buoyant and thoughtful auteur, one with both an aesthetic sensibility and an airtight knowledge of the mechanical parts of a plot.

Luckily, Lucrecia Martel is up to the task. She effectively collapses three discrete sections of a book which spans 22 years into one roiling effort of action; Vicuña Porto, our “boss-fight” villain of the third act, now appears in the first few minutes, and is the driving force behind Zama’s feelings of ineffectiveness right from the film’s first act. This is her most major change; she is methodical and sentimental in her respect for the plot movements of the source material. Insane fluffy hairpieces and red dyed nails paint a picture of a disgusting upper class, and the crisp foley mix of sonorous buzzing sounds and elliptical trills elevate Zama’s paranoia into an immersion for the audience into his consciousness. The noises and camera angles create a subjectivity; it is an effective way to portray a first-person narrative. The mise en scène, in short, is immaculate.

Unfortunately Daniel Gimenez-Cacho’s performance is not. As Zama he is unemotive, stiff, bulky, and rather dazed. There’s something erotic about Zama in the novel - he has an almost feral quality to him which is very attractive, even when he’s doing atrocious things. The wild energy of the novel’s Zama is not felt in Giménez-Cacho’s performance, and it rather dulls the tense situations Martel has written for him. It is worth noting that Giménez-Cacho’s most widely known performance is as the narrator in Y Tu Mama Tambien; perhaps he’s be better off as a voice rather than a face. He collaborated again with his Y Tu Mama costar Gael Garcia Bernal in 2004 for Pedro Almodóvar’s La Mala Educación (Almodóvar and Bernal both have producer credits in Zama). How did this perfect storm of Spanish language superstars let this miscast happen?

But no matter. The prodigiously exquisite landscapes and impeccably researched script are worthy of an Oscar (Zama is Argentina's submission to the Foreign Language Film Award of the 90th Annual Academy Awards) and Martel has continued to establish herself as one of the greatest working directors du jour.

“Zama is not a good person, but he is a real person,” Martel told a small audience and myself after the screening. She is petite and clothed in slacks and a blazer and speaks through a translator. “I see myself in him.” Endlessly humble and diligent in her storytelling, she is the people’s champion, even as she asserts herself as an existentialist master in the ranks of Fellini, Bergman, and Buñuel. The New York Film Festival has always been it’s own Bosch-ian medley of voices, and Zama shows both Martel and the festival itself at their best.

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