Southern District – Technically Masterful and Dramatically Nuanced

First screened in the UK at the London Film Festival back in 2010, Juan Carlos Valdivia’s challenging drama Southern District (or Zona Sur, in the film’s native Spanish) has finally made it to the DVD/VOD market.
The film centres on a white upper class family living in La Paz, Bolivia, during a time of major cultural upheaval. Referred to by some as the end of the ‘Bolivian Apartheid’, this period saw the first Aymaran (one of the country’s largest indigenous peoples) President rise to power in a country that had been dominated by descendants of the early European settlers for so long.
However, this is no triumphant call to arms, instead the film takes a highly understated and almost subdued approach to this cultural transformation.
Ninón del Castillo (a non-actor, like the rest of the cast) leads the family as Carola, a recently divorced mother of three. The drama then follows the individual members of this family, along with a their two Aymaran servants, as their slice of the high-life begins to crumble beneath them.
But there’s no major crash, many of these issues are merely implied by the interactions between the different family members. A disapproving glance here and a particularly feisty reply from one of the servants become the key to following the nuanced dramatic progression.
Valdivia also makes use of a series of brilliant sequence shots (entire scenes consisting of just a single shot). He sends his camera swivelling gracefully on the family dinner table, following the conversation around the room and delivering a unique viewing experience. The ever-moving camera stands at odds with the measured pace of the drama, but it does make for some exquisitely beautiful shots.
Not only is the camera movement a challenge to pull off, but the lighting and the performances have to be pitch perfect to match. Five minute takes ask a great deal of the actors and they have to hit every cue, not only with their lines but also spatially. So what a relief that Valdivia’s cast deliver such superbly naturalistic performances. The youngest child, played by Nicolás Fernández, is particularly impressive and he delivers one of the most accomplished performances by a child actor that you will see this year. His relationship with Wilson, the male servant, is also one of the most engaging and well-handled narrative threads in the film; thanks, in part, to Fernández’s delicate performance.

If nothing else, Southern District is a masterful exercise in cinematic technique, but there’s more to it than that. The film has an overriding sense of dramatic nuance that Western cinema so rarely provides. It may not be the pulse-raising cultural revolution piece it could have been (in clumsier hands, might I add), but Valdivia’s film provides a far deeper portrait of a country in the process of metamorphosis.

This review was originally written for Close-Up Film and the film is out now on DVD and VOD, in the UK.

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