Forbidden territory


La Zona is a tense foray into
the moral maze that the fear
of crime has generated across
Latin America


La Zona
Rodrigo Plá
2008, Morena Films et. al.
97 minutes (Spanish with English subtitles)

Reviewed by Eugene Carey

LATAMROB rating: ****

THE IDEA may have germinated in Argentina – where the murder of María Marta García Belsunce, a suburban socialite found dead in 2002 in her exclusive home within a gated community, provoked catalepsy in the middle classes – yet it strikes a chord across Latin America and translates particularly well to Mexico, where anxiety about crime is even more pronounced.

Just as the García Belsunce case, brilliantly reinterpreted in fiction by Claudia Piñeiro in Las viudas de los jueves (Thursday’s Widows), revealed a deeply disturbing truth – that, given the community’s exceptional security, the killer had in fact been someone from inside – La Zona (The Zone) paints a portrait of the Latin American middle classes who seek to shut out an indigent society yet, in doing so, expose their own, moral impoverishment.

Rodrigo Plá’s film is a labyrinth of grey where nothing is good or bad – everything is just bad – and the real motive forces of community are envy, fear and group hysteria. Slick yet at times deliberately blunt, it is that rare debut feature in which an audacious newcomer triumphs with a work that combines suspense and allegory. The real sickness being incubated in La Zona is not insecurity but inequality, and the director skilfully exploits the dilemmas this generates in a city whose policing priorities are well known.

Sea of shanty towns

A storm breaches the hitherto impenetrable walls of La Zona, a posh, manicured community for the wealthy elite of Mexico City adrift like a high-security island in a sea of shanty towns. Anyone familiar with the Mexican capital will note the resemblance to Santa Fe on its outskirts – once a toxic rubbish dump where scavengers living in shacks eked out an existence, areas of which were then transformed by changes in the economy into a glittering showcase of multinational offices, malls and condos within sight of overcrowded pueblos rotting in gullies and clinging to hillsides

Three teenage ne’er-do-wells hesitantly infiltrate La Zona, and by murdering a housewife who stumbles upon them set off a chain of events that culminates in two of them being gunned down and the third, the hapless Miguel (Alan Chávez), being relentlessly pursued by a braying mob of vigilante residents. At all times, the burghers of La Zona resist calls to draft in the authorities in an effort to maintain their privileged autonomous status.

The predicament that this poses for those who wish to defer to the law – albeit a highly imperfect one – are embodied well by Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), the teenager who discovers the fugitive Miguel and comes into conflict with his father Daniel (Giménez Cacho), who is leading the vigilantes, and Comandante Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza), at once a brutal, corrupt cop but also one who feels the need “to do something right for once in my life” and has an instinctive distrust of the rich. That distrust is confirmed by the solution adopted by Rigoberto’s political boss, which inevitably involves a chequebook.

For those who doubt that the level of contrast depicted in the film between the residents of La Zona relaxing on manicured lawns nourished by sprinklers as the rest of the city thirsts and the grubby poor who seek cheap thrills in casual crime, let us not forget, according to David Lida’s masterful profile of Mexico City, First Stop in the New World, that some of its impoverished residents scratch out average annual earnings of $5,900 while the most well-off capitalino – the telecoms tycoon Carlos Slim – sits on net worth of $70bn.

A subtle and clever addition to this mix of inequality is Plá’s racial profiling – residents of La Zona are far whiter, and in some cases even blonde, while the stuttering and unsophisticated interlopers are darker, scrawnier mestizos. To emphasise the point, Maribel Verdú – the Spanish actress catapulted to fame by Y tu mamá también – is drafted in as Alejandro’s dutiful mother, cleverly playing up the almost neo-colonial class-caste hangover that persists in Mexico.

Plá’s realism nurtures a sense of urgency about the breakdown of public security in Mexico City, and is interwoven with a fearsome anxiety about the illusion of suburban stability that has shades of David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. It is smalll wonder that La Zona garnered the director and fellow scriptwriter Laura Santullo a slew of awards.

However, the film also generated mixed feelings in Mexico and Latin America itself, where some critics accused the director of a lack of subtlety and condescension. Either way, La Zona represents an intelligent and audacious foray into unknown territory that is not dissimilar to the story it tells.

Eugene Carey is a journalist

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