In the first decade of the 21st Century, Argentine director Lucrecia Martel made three feature films and instantaneously became one of the most important and exciting voices in international cinema: first came 2001's La Ciénaga, then 2004's The Holy Girl, then 2008's The Headless Woman, and then silence. Not calculated silence; just one of those things that happens where one large-scale project falls through, one or two others don't get off the ground, and somehow we end up going nine years without hearing from a woman who, in only seven years, established the most admirable film canon of any new filmmaker in this century.

I won't say the nine years were "worth it", because who knows how many Martel films we might have gotten with a bit more luck, and how great they would have been; yet something right happened, because now she's made her fourth feature, Zama, and it's... possibly her best film? I will always have a very soft spot for La Ciénaga, which after all had the shock of the new to recommend it. But Zama is all kinds of amazing, anyway, doing the things Martel's films have all done, and then adding more on top of it. The film has been adapted from a 1956 novel by Antonio di Benedetto, which I have not read (but if it's true what I've heard, that it's as great as the film, it's a masterpiece indeed); the story is about one Don Diego de Zama (Daniel Giménez Cacho), a mid-tier bureaucrat in the Spanish Empire some time in the 18th Century. Zama has been stranded for some time in a frontier outpost, punishing small crimes with bored authoritarian cruelty, and the solitary thing he wants from life is to get the hell back to Europe. This is the one thing he cannot get; in part because of a faceless, Kafka-esque system of policies that seem to be perfectly tuned to keep him from budging even one inch away from his current posting, and in much greater part because he's an incredibly pathetic asshole, and in this capacity is his own worst enemy.

This ends up playing as something of a prequel to Martel's prior films: one of her major themes has been to sardonically analyse the lives of Argentina's bourgeoisie, and Zama is kind of an origin story for that same bourgeoisie. It's facile to say that this is a film "about colonialism" - it is about a great many things - but colonialism is omnipresent, and Zama himself is positioned as the embodiment of all the banal wickedness built into that system (nor does this positioning happen at all subtly: the film's first scene finds him pervily spying on a group of naked native women packing mud on themselves, and the second shows him watching a man being beaten for some unnamed crime, while he wears the detached, bored look of someone too lazy to turn off the five-hour House Hunters marathon they have somehow stumbled onto. Indeed, if there's one point in the whole film where I choked back a slight measure of disappointment, it's with how damn obvious this second scene was). But it's not just a historical document. Zama is presented as a thoroughly modern figure, with a distinctly 20th Century sense of peevish ennui, and Giménez Cacho does exemplary work bringing that into the foreground with his tight facial expressions. These all circle around the same small set of emotions, of which "aggrieved, martyr-like annoyance" is the most prominent.

So it's a character study and social commentary and revisionist history all at one and the same time, which is already neat enough; but what pushes Zama into the stratosphere of recent art film masterpieces is the style and even more the tone with which those themes are pushed. Zama is a comedy, with caveats: it's particularly bitter and sarcastic and dark. Still, much of what makes it work is the constant dry humor, all of it at Zama's own expense: Giménez Cacho's performance taps into the vein of "dignified man surrounded by morons" comic acting that stretches back to the great silent comedies, but the total smallness of his mind and his worldview both flip that on its head. He ends up, instead, a useless sad sack tossed around by everything and everything around him, compunded by the filmmakers' tendency to indulge in detailed, busy staging, both at the level of camerawork (this is a film drunk on the potential of deep focus), and blocking (it is almost always the case that whatever is going on around Zama is more interesting than he is; the limit case is a magnificent scene, maybe even the film's best, when he gets soundly upstaged by a curious llama). Even the sound mix is full of dialogue and sound effects that tend to crowd out the nominal protagonist, unseen forces coming at all ends to mock the meagerly self-serving dreams of a boring, petty man; if Robert Bresson and Monty Python had ever teamed up to make a soundtrack, this is kind of what we'd end up with.

The film makes extraordinarily good use of close-ups, better than anything has in a while, letting us share Zama's exasperation while also quietly, sadly judging him; and, too, it makes extraordinarily good use of long shots, letting us see the goings-on of the world around him, reducing him and his boredom to a small element in a fully-realised setting. It is maybe the case that Zama invents nothing. The most blatant stylistic choice is to bring in a collection of 20th Century quasi-tropical lounge standards ("Harbor Lights" gets an especially prominent position, right at the start, where we cannot possibly fail to notice it) to put a distinctly post-modern and ironic slant on the merry mockery of the title character, and further connect him to the post-WWII bourgeoisie that Martel has had such acid for in the past. But ironically repurposing ultra-square pop music cues is hardly radical, by this point. Still, Martel's genius lies not in being shocking but in being perfect; Zama's journey from boredom to madness (over the course of a phenomenal third act that I won't give away except to say: the colors go from subdued to blazing in a most exciting way; it feels like both an homage and counterpoint to the evergreen masterpiece Aguirre, the Wrath of God; and it's where the film securely went from 4.5 to 5 stars in my head and heart) is all of the best of 21st Century art film technique honed to lacerating precision, anchored by a fantastic deadpan performance and faultless compositions, color design, and sound mixing. It is a smart film, historically-minded, literary in the most cinematic possible way; it sprawls out of control with great deliberateness and purpose; it's both satiric-funny and absurd-funny; and it's a completely effective depiction of bureaucracy as deadly to the individual soul as it is to entire populations. I try to be cagey about ever, ever declaring new movies to be faultless masterpieces that I am confident will be regarded years hence with great admiration for their form and content alike; with Zama, there wasn't even a moment's hesitation.