Saturday, March 27, 2010
Southern District ***1/2
Director: Juan Carlos Valdivia
Cast: Ninón del Castillo, Pascual Loayza
Nicolás Fernández, Juan Pablo Koria, Mariana Vargas
Viviana Condori, Luisa de Urioste, Glenda Rodríguez
Set in an upper class zone of the Bolivian capital, Southern District takes us inside the house of a family as they go through their daily lives.
Carola (del Castillo), the mother and head of the house, lives with her children Patricio (Koria), Bernarda (Vargas) and Andrés (Fernández).
They also share the house with Wilson (Loayza) the butler, who has become a conflicting father figure of sorts and Marcelina (Condori) the maid.
We see as Carola deals with her daughter's disdain for her social class, Patricio's overpowering sex drive (his girlfriend is played by Luisa de Urioste) and little Andrés' fantastical existence.
Within their problems we encounter a microcosms of what Bolivia has become, as social classes shift and indigenous people begin to regain the place they have been denied for ages (notable mostly with the complicated relationship between Wilson and Carola who have trouble dividing the lines between service and family).
If at first glance the plot sounds familiar, the director gives it a new perspective relying on a camera formalism that might recall Godard and Antonioni.
Valdivia takes this soap opera concept and transforms it into a fascinating study of concealment and alienation.
Aided by cinematographer Paul de Lumen, the director comes up with a visual plan during which the camera never leaves the family house.
Every scene is composed of long shots, dollies and crane shots that move around the sets, sometimes in complete disregard of the characters (which leaves us with beheaded actors, dialogues heard behind closed doors and a restless mobility that both explores and seeks escape).
The director, who has worked in Mexican soap operas, has no trouble creating dramatic tension in the obvious set up of family quarrels and confrontations but Southern District's brilliance lies in its reevaluation of the familiar.
The film's key scene might be one where Patricio wants to tape a sexual encounter he has with his girlfriend. At her reluctance he tries to ease her into it by telling her to imagine "there's two people", one who makes love to her and the other who films it.
Valdivia's camera works in the same way as it moves throughout the house caressing the mementos and characters, while it tries to absorb all the information it can to help us understand, if not empathize, with these people's superficial existence.
During one chilling moment the camera shows us how all the characters, except Andrés, stand inside the house looking out behind clear glass windows.
We are instantly reminded of an earlier moment where we saw a bunch of bottled butterflies in Andrés' room.
Valdivia gives us the idea that he's exploring autobiographical territory, if not directly at least in ways of inspiration, particularly with Andrés.
The little boy who wants to fly away (literally with a pair of wings he built) and figuratively as he dreams of becoming a filmmaker and discusses this with his imaginary friend appropriately called Spielberg (the nods to E.T.: The Extra-terrestrial and other Spielbergian themes speak for themselves).
Andrés is the only family member who at one point leaves the house-learning about a social reality he practically ignored-and as such we wonder if Valdivia is perhaps suggesting that art is the most efficient way to escape the harshness of reality.