"Southern District," playing as part of Sundance's World Cinema Narrative Competition, is very likely the best Bolivian film this critic has ever seen.
Sure, that speaks to my personal limitations in the field of South American cinema, but it's not entirely faint praise. Juan Carlos Valdivia's drama is a formal stunner, taking a premise that could have become boring and claustrophobic and yielding something that's frequently engrossing and always technically compelling, even for viewers lacking in more than a rudimentary Bolivian socio-historical context.
[My review of "Southern District" -- a short-ish review, probably -- after the break.]
The plight of the idle rich in a nation on the verge of transition or collapse is a standard of world cinema, so well established awareness of Bolivian politics to the appreciation of "Southern District" is no more essential than awareness of something like Luis Bunel's "The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie" or Vittorio De Sica's "The Garden of the Finzi-Continis" (but better films, but viable companion texts).
In a multi-terraced, tile-roofed manse, we meet a family of privilege, with matriarch Carola (Ninón del Castillo) and her variably spoiled children Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria), Bernarda (Mariana Vargas) and young Andres (Nicolas Fernandez), a lively child whose imaginary friend is named Steven Spielberg. The family is deeply in debt and there's little doubt that they're a reflection of Bolivia's former stratification. They'd be powerless without their servants Wilson (Pascual Loayza) and Marcelina (Viviana Condori), both Aymara natives.
Now again, I don't know from Bolivian society, but I do know from disconnected gentility. The main family at the heart of "Southern District" literally does not leave their property for the majority of the movie. They make mention of the outside world, but Valdivia keeps their isolation at the center of the film's structure. If things don't happen within the walls of the house, within its gardens or inside its gates, they aren't germane to the narrative, which is minor to begin within. Characters often stare out their window, but rarely seem to be seeing anything. Only Andres, who scrambles around the rooftops, is capable of experiencing the La Paz beyond his family borders, which probably offers hope for the future.
The family is walled into a house of such excess that we're meant to be embarrassed at their level of interior decoration, at the curtains and upholstery, at the shelves of perfume bottles and knick-knacks, at the bounty of available food, at the closets full of clothing. Valdivia keeps the characters trapped using his camera as something of an electrified fence. Nearly every scene in "Southern District" is set in a single room or portion of the house and the camera revolves around the characters, placing them only in the context of their insular world. Without edits, scenes play out with the camera rotating around and around, anticipating character movement or sometimes finding more interest in inanimate objects than in the characters.
The movie lacks in narrative, but the execution of the stylistic conceit is impressive to watch. In addition to Valdivia and cinematographer Paul de Lumen, credit must be given to production designer Joaquin Sanchez for making the house its own dynamic character.
With the relationship between Carola and Wilson anchoring the film, del Castillo and Loayza give the most memorable performances, though the amount of nudity for Koria, Vargas and Luisa De Urioste help make those stars watchable throughout. [Yes, that last point is superficial, but if you're seeing six films per day and the films you're watching are completely devoid of stars you're able to recognize, you latch onto whatever you can...]
I would probably need a Bolivian native to talk me through the nation's matriarchal culture and recent reelection of the country's first Aymaran president to go through the aspects of the film that are unique and culturally specific. Fortunately, enough about the film's bubble of entitlement was universal to hold my attention.