The uneasy co-existence of indigenous and colonial cultures in Latin America is given darkly oneiric treatment in Zama, Lucrecia Martel's atmospheric adaptation of the well-regarded 1956 existential novel by fellow Argentinean Antonio di Benedetto. The director of The Holy Girl and The Headless Woman has always been more concerned with creating an enveloping experience than shaping a conventional narrative. That's more than ever the case with this freewheeling historical drama about a minor officer of the Spanish crown stationed in a remote backwater of what is now Paraguay, waiting for a transfer that will never come.

Some no doubt will find the film's elliptical blend of Beckettian absurdism, surreal ambiguity, Kafkaesque bureaucratic farce and mysterious nature intoxicating, its spell fortified by bold use of arresting landscapes and equally striking faces. For others, the director's disdain for explication will make Zama a maddening bore, causing them to check out long before its languorous inaction makes way for a closing stretch of delirium, violence and bleak deliverance.

Coming nine years after Martel's last feature and riding on her considerable international reputation, the commercially difficult, long-delayed film at least is assured a solid festival profile, continuing after Venice with Toronto, New York and London.

The opening shot positions Mexican actor Daniel Gimenez Cacho — who has the long chiseled nose and proud dignity of a marble statue — on a shoreline in late-18th-century Spanish colonial regalia as Don Diego de Zama, contemplating a distant, more civilized world from which he feels unjustly removed. The South American officer hasn't seen his wife or child in years, and his requests for a transfer to the city of Lerma have been repeatedly ignored. Still, despite showing little in the way of official zeal, Zama's high opinion of himself keeps alive the belief that his loyal service will be rewarded and he'll soon receive a royal summons.

However, one Governor after another toys with Zama's exasperation, belittling his authority with humiliating tasks or inflating his failings while stalling him with political doublespeak or blunt refusals.

Meanwhile, his position in this far-flung outpost becomes steadily more tenuous, as even the local woman with whom he fathered a child shuns him. An altercation with his subordinate (Juan Minujin) earns him a reprimand, which stings all the more when the junior officer is "punished" by being removed to Lerma. And his attempts to cozy up to an absent Treasury minister's flirtatious wife (Lola Duenas) reveal her to be an evasive tease, unwilling to use her influence in his favor, though Zama's indignation is compounded when he finds her canoodling with his rival.

Early on, one character describes a river fish that spends its life fighting the current that would cast it on dry land, waging a battle just to stay in one place. That thankless struggle echoes Zama's fate, and Martel portrays this stasis all too literally in a punishing first hour or more that ambles from one abstruse episode to the next accompanied by inscrutable snatches of dialogue from disembodied voices, without summoning even the woozy momentum that a fever dream like this would seem to require. Instead, the director takes dramatic inertia to numbing extremes.

Martel, in her more compelling contemporary dramas, has often provided glimpses into Argentina's class, race and gender divides, and there's bracing texture in this film's representation of slavery. The probing camera of Portuguese cinematographer Rui Pocas (Tabu) captures images of the black and indigenous servant population, at times against livestock, as if in the view of Zama and the European conquistadors these perceived inferiors are akin to beasts. Elsewhere, the protagonist's sense of superiority is clouded by desire for the women, even if that doesn't restrain him from acts of cruelty. But the abuses of colonialism have been portrayed far more trenchantly in countless Latin American films of recent years, and that remains just a part of Martel's canvas, not her subject.

Where Zama belatedly comes alive is in its gripping final 20 minutes or so. The title character's desperation prompts him to lead a dangerous mission to hunt the notorious, possibly mythical bandit Vicuna Porto (Matheus Nachtergaele) in the last-ditch hope that his capture might be Zama's ticket out of there. The shifting wilderness landscape, dense vegetation, encounters with a hostile tribe daubed in red body paint and the bitterly ironic discovery of Zama's target generate a Heart of Darkness-type hallucinatory fascination that's almost like an entirely different movie.

Martel makes inventive use of sometimes anachronistic sound and music effects — from the blanketing noises of nature to bursts of distorted industrial din to a recurring luau-type tune that conjures tropical breezes. The aim clearly is to distance her film from fusty costume drama and plunge us into a violated world beyond time, its beauties obscured by the consuming ambition of a man whose destiny grows inexorably narrower. But for much of its running time, Zama is merely remote and enervating, too accurately reflecting its protagonist’s predicament.

Production companies: Rei Cine, Bananeira Filmes, in association with El Deseo, Patagonik Film Group, MPM Film, Canana, Lemming Film, KNM, O Som e a Furia, Louverture Film, Shortcut Films, Telecine, Bertha Foundation, Perdomo Productions, Picnic Producciones, Punta Colorda del Cinema
Cast: Daniel Gimenez Cacho, Matheus Nachtergaele, Juan Minujin, Lola Duenas, Rafael Spregelburd, Mariana Nunes, Daniel Veronese, Carlos Defeo
Director-screenwriter: Lucrecia Martel, based on the novel by Antonio di Benedetto
Producers: Benjamin Domenech, Santiago Gallelli, Matias Roveda, Vania Catani
Executive producers: Pablo Cruz, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Angelisa Stein
Director of photography: Rui Pocas
Production designer: Renata Pinheiro
Costume designer: Julio Suarez
Editors: Miguel Schverdfinger, Karen Harley
Casting: Veronica Souto, Natalia Smirnoff
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Sales: The Match Factory

115 minutes