REVIEW: DVD Release: La Zona

Film: La Zona
Release date: 23rd February 2009
Certificate: 15
Running time: 97 mins
Director: Rodrigo Plá
Starring: Daniel Giménez Cacho, Maribel Verdú, Alan Chávez, Daniel Tovar, Carlos Bardem
Genre: Drama/Thriller
Studio: Soda
Format: DVD
Country: Spain/Argentina/Mexico

Uruguayan born director and screenwriter Rodrigo Pla utilises the increasingly popular, yet socially divisive American style gated community to take a large critical swipe at middle-class Mexico’s attempt to distance itself from its poorer and less fortunate countrymen.

The movie begins with a finely crafted opening salvo, as the camera scans the homes of the advantaged few before rising skyward and sweeping over a high defensive wall to concentrate on the wretched souls beyond.

A thunderous rainstorm ensues, lightening strikes bringing down a billboard, and a bridge of opportunity is crafted from the surrounding destruction. The residents of an enclosed community are visited by three aggressive male reminders of a inferior dog eat dog world.

An attempted robbery, born from a necessity to achieve sustenance, backfires leaving several people dead and one frightened teenager on the run from a hate filled vigilante mob.

The inhabitants’ seclusion is guaranteed by the Mexican government on the provision that their private security force can keep the area crime free. With latest developments placing their privileged lifestyle in serious jeopardy, the community’s leaders begin a cover up that threatens more than just the isolated invader’s life…

La Zona, Rodrigo Pla’s second directorial feature film, which won the People’s Choice award at Montreal’s 2007 Festival du Nouveau Cinema, is a thought provoking thriller that tries to rise above its contemporaries by injecting a topical dilemma into an old fashioned morality play.

The director sets to his task with an assured confidence that defies his inexperience. The opening is refreshingly well paced and suspenseful, while the cinematography by Emiliano Villanueva is skilfully executed, and perhaps the strongest element in the movie’s arsenal. Not only do we see the vast gaping financial and unethical hole between the societies but due, in no small part, to the staged setting of prosperity surrounded by slum vistas, we can virtually feel, taste and smell the divide. This in turn forces us to choose a side; we empathise with the poorer downtrodden population and begin to despise the inhabitants of the gated community.

The plot evolves nicely throughout the film’s first hour as a community leader’s son, Alejandro (Daniel Tovar), takes the moral high ground and becomes the lone protector of the hunted boy. Our interest is well and truly captured, and the script has drawn us in and made us want to see Pla deal with the questions raised. What is a life worth? Without money are we all the same? Is survival and protection the true road to human wealth? Unfortunately, once all the elements are in place, the implementation of the story becomes stale, the dialogue weakens, almost clichéd, and our attention begins to wane. What started out as an opportunity to make a valid statement, and raise important issues within the boundaries of an entertaining thriller, now sinks below the weight of its own expectations.

The majority of roles - a frustrated cop (Mario Zaragoza) and two teen leads aside (Tovar and Alan Chavez) - are almost completely void of any real development, leaving the actors with a mountain to climb as they attempt to breathe life into their one dimensional characters. If the same amount of attention had been paid to character and story arcs as the set up and enthralling first half then the director would have had something special on his CV. Yes, this movie did win the People’s Choice award, but so have many better and more deserving movies than La Zona, a significant number of which, as well as those involved, have now slipped into obscurity.

The issues raised and the points made by Pla regarding his adopted country, having moved to Mexico in his youth, are extremely well presented, but, unfortunately, as the story progresses, the thrills are lost in a swamp of lacklustre stereotyping. Yet just when all hope seems lost, Pla turns things around; he rejuvenates his tale with an unexpected and bold, if somewhat downbeat, final fifteen minutes.

A topical suspense filled thriller with an impressive opening that is perversely matched by its dire second breath before being plucked from the ashes, Phoenix like, and saved by an admirably brave and poignant ending. MG

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