La Zona is the real deal – a straight genre movie that delivers the anti-fascist message more effectively than The Wave. There is nothing desperately original here, but the mixture is new and it’s done with flair. At 97 mins it’s just about the right length, though I’m not totally happy with the ending (which may be my problem rather than the film’s).
I don’t want to reveal the plot twists, although this is the kind of genre film that tired fans will probably criticise for being ‘formulaic’ and they’ll guess what happens. But, I don’t think this is the point.
So, here’s the skinny. ‘La Zona’ is what is now often termed a ‘gated community’ – a global phenomenon just as possible in India or China as well as Rio, any major city in the US and no doubt parts of Europe. La Zona is well protected with a wall and surveillance to keep out Mexico City’s teeming millions of shanty-town and inner city block inhabitants. As one commentator points out, from the verdant golf course of La Zona, you can see the slums beyond the barbed wire. (I’m conscious of this because from the golf course near my house you can see the tower blocks of the local town – we don’t have gates, but we are cut off by a limited number of bridges over the canal.)
The innovation here is that the wealthy residents of La Zona have been granted certain legal immunities – as long as they don’t use violence to protect their property. But one night, when a storm causes an advertising hoarding to fall down and penetrate La Zona’s defences, three youths break in with disastrous consequences.
Early in the film a number of different genre repertoires are raided for familiar elements – a young couple are interrupted in their clumsy lovemaking – the perfect victims for a horror film catastrophe. Power cuts out and a surveillance system goes down. The outcome of these two events is bloody and then the other repertoires kick in. There is a central family of misguided father, liberal mother and confused teen and the dysfunctional nature of this grouping will provide the narrative imperative. Parents/elders meet in the school gym to co-ordinate their response – cue 12 Angry Men and the intimations of a fascist community response being established. Shock, horror – the local police captain is neither stupid or bribable. This presents the potential narrative conflict. From here on in, the narrative builds in a predictable manner, but it is well-handled, exciting and intriguing. There are hints of American style science fiction/speculative fiction. La Zona is almost a Ballardian creation. The creepiest character is a young businesswoman who seems completely without emotion. I hate to admit it, but Peter Bradshaw actually gets this one right and his suggestion that it might have been written by Ira Levin and adapted by Michael Crichton is a good observation. You do feel that some of these people could be androids straight out of Westworld. The opening shot of the film (don’t miss it – because it proves important later) also reminded me of a host of images selected to portray a seemingly peaceful suburbia and although it’s very different, I couldn’t help thinking of the opening of Blue Velvet. I was also reminded of some of those 1960s movies that worried about youth culture and totalitarianism. I’m thinking of Peter Watkins’ films, but a more literary reference would be to Lord of the Flies. La Zona flirts with a narrative strand in which the youths of the gated community turn to vigilantism. This is more terrifying because they are dressed in a uniform very similar to that of grammar school boys in the UK (see the image above). I was also reminded of one of the most radical of Hollywood teen movies, Over the Edge, in which middle-class kids bored on a new housing estate turn on their parents through boredom. So, here you have a thriller which draws on SF, youth pictures, legal dramas and policiers – amongst others. It’s perfect for a genre study day.
However, this is a popular Mexican film and carries the kind of political charge we’ve come to expect from recent Mexican movies. If you’ve seen Y tu mamá también and remembered its discourse about the inequalities in Mexican society, you’ll soon pick up the threads here. The climactic scenes have a real power to portray a near future which takes us straight back to the terrors of fascist rule. There is also a narrative strand that to some extent provides hope and therefore dissipates the sense of shock and outrage and this is what I’m struggling to come to terms with. In some ways I wish the film had ended earlier with a jolt. Still, this is something to argue about and I hope the film finds an audience in the UK. Apart from Gomorra, there isn’t much competition around, so discerning audiences should really look out for La Zona.
I was intrigued by the number of faces I recognised. The hospital doctor from KM 31 turns up as a politician, the very wonderful Maribel Verdú (from Y tu mamá también and Pan’s Labyrinth) is rather wasted as the liberal mother. But the star turn as the father figure is by Daniel Giménez Cacho. I thought he looked familiar, but couldn’t place the actor at first – he was the creepy priest in Bad Education, another priest in Innocent Voices and the narrator on Y tu mamá también. In his early career he also appeared in Guillermo del Toro’s Cronos. There is clearly a growing pool of actors and crew members available for these Mexican-Spanish co-productions. (IMDB lists the film as Mexican, but there are credits for the Spanish funding agencies on the film print.)
This is a first time feature film direction job by Rodrigo Plá, whose second feature, Desierto adentro (2008) won prizes at the Guadalajara Film Festival. Scriptwriter Laura Santullo worked with Plá on both films. The UK distributor of La Zona is Soda Pictures which usually produces a good DVD.