Beautifully Shot Southern District Explores Bolivia's Dissolving Upperclass

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Juan Carlos Valdivia's Southern District (Zona Sur), which won Sundance awards for directing and screenwriting, opens at the Coral Gables Art Cinema tonight. It's is a subtle film that comments on Bolivia's dissolving upper class seen through the seemingly scattered lives of an affluent La Paz family. Matriarch Carola is beset with money problems, while trying to keep up appearances and maintain control over her three children who live with her in their upper class abode-tile-roofed multistory home in the "Zona Sur (Southern District)" suburb.

Her oversexed eldest son, Patricio, drinks too much and gambles

away his car. Daughter Bernarda is constantly clashing with her mother's

unwavering desire to see her grow into and become more a part of the

bourgeoisie. And little Andres finds himself on the rooftop or tree

house playing with his imaginary friend, "Spielberg." Meanwhile, butler

Wilson, who is an Aymara Indian, keeps things together with his resolute

service to his employer.

It's a banal existence the divorced Carola has constructed for herself and her children. She uses her home to ostensibly shield them from the outside world, while trying to maintain an air of wealth and class, all while not being able to pay the help their wages. A spoiled person herself, you see the overindulgence reflected in her kids -- most notably in Patricio, who lives life oblivious to consequences. And while she treats butler Wilson with contempt, you know (and eventually see) that without him, her world caves in. Carola must eventually deal with letting go. Her two elder children are at college age, she's growing older and her debt is mounting. She realizes the house she's made her sanctuary from the outside world is not truly a home. In time, the line that once divided Carola's family from their Aymara native servants begins to blur.

The plot and themes in Southern District are commonplace in South American cinema, especially when class and family are concerned. But what sets Valdivia's film apart are its elliptical camera angles, and unbroken and swooping crane shots. The film finds its strength in its stylistic patterns, lighting and colors. The script is relatively weak (there isn't any substantial character conflict until late in the film when some unexpected news hits Wilson's life), but Paul de Lumen's cinematography and Valdivia's overall aesthetic brings the story to the surface, and gives it substance. 

The beginning of the film finds itself awash in light and bright whites -- no doubt symbolism for the family's once well-to-do and secure lifestyle. But as the layers of reality are peeled, the colors turn darker, reflecting the stark reality of things. The film finds its better moments in frames that resemble paintings or still-life photographs.

Southern District is a beautifully shot, honest and temperate film. And where it lacks in originality, it more than makes up for in style and elegance.

Southern District (Zona Sur) opens Friday at The Coral Gables Art Cinema (260 Aragon Ave., Coral Gables) with two separate screenings at 7:30 and 10:00 p.m., each including a complimentary reception with open bar and food that runs from 6:30 to 10:00 p.m. for all ticket buyers. Tickets are $9 ($7 for seniors 65 and over and full time students -- I.D. required). Call 786-385-9689 or visit gablescinema.com.

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