Southern District (Zona sur) takes place at the end of one era and the start of another. The story unfolds in La Paz, one of the wealthy neighborhoods of Bolivia’s southern district, which is akin to Beverly Hills or The Hamptons — an enclave for the fabulously rich and powerful. Carola (Ninón del Castillo), a proud, elegant divorcee, lives in a mansion with her three children. Two are college aged: Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria), a spoiled-rotten playboy who has his mother buy his condoms, and Bernarda (Mariana Vargas), an independent spirit who secretly pursues her lesbian sexuality with a young woman from the northern, disreputable part of town. Carola’s third child, the sweet, insatiably curious 6-year-old Andres (Nicolás Fernández), shadows the family’s live-in butler Wilson (Pascual Loayaza) and maid Mariana (Vivian Condori), peppering them with questions about cooking and what, as children, they wanted to be when they grew up.
Andres is a likable, cheeky kid with an active play life. His imaginary friend is named Spielberg, as in Steven, a main influence on writer-director Juan Carlos Valdivia (the other is Pier Paolo Pasolini; talk about unlikely bedfellows). There isn’t much in terms of plot in Southern District. The movie simply tracks the day-to-day events of this seemingly rich family, although the more we get to know the household, the more we realize its privileged-class status is simply a façade Carola is fighting furiously to maintain. Wilson complains that he hasn’t been paid in six months; Carola is barely home, having to work long hours to pay for the lifestyle she has established for her family. But although class and race delineations in Bolivia used to be clear-cut and impossible to cross, the present has brought a new reality. Wilson and Mariana, who speak to each other in dialect, refer to their employers as “whities” and rebel against them in clever, oh-so-subtle ways.
Valdivia has made a bold artistic choice with Southern District. In every scene the camera revolves, either at eye level, in slow 360-degree pans that reveal the interaction between all the people in a room, or from high above the action to present a God’s-eye view of the characters. In many shots, the protagonists are seen behind panes of glass or window security bars: This is a family trapped in a bubble by custom and ritual, unable or unwilling to comprehend fully the society changing rapidly around them. And the bubble is about to burst: Through tossed-off bits of dialogue, we recognize the transformation these people are being forced to undergo. Patricio laments that Bolivian wine is now being served with dinner. When Carola discovers that her son lost his Toyota in a poker game, she insists that her servants wash it before the new owners claim it (God forbid anyone ever think of them as dirty people). And when the oblivious Carola stumbles upon Bernarda and her tomboyish lesbian pals, she never once thinks her daughter might be gay: She only wishes the girl would mingle with lesbians of their social class.
Strikingly shot by cinematographer Paul de Lumen, who manages to capture the luxury of the family’s home so deeply that you can almost feel how plush the towels are, and impeccably performed by actors who must hit their marks precisely in order not to ruin the unusually long takes, Southern District feels like a snapshot of a world on the brink of extinction. “What’s going to happen to us, Mom?” Bernarda pointedly asks. That question is being asked in many countries throughout Latin America. The answer is yet to be determined.
Cast: Ninón del Castillo, Pascual Loayaza, Nicolás Fernández, Juan Pablo Koria, Mariana Vargas, Viviana Condori.
Writer-director: Juan Carlos Valdivia.
Producer: Gabriela Maire.
Running time: 108 minutes. Vulgar language, nudity, explicit sex, adult themes. In Spanish and Aymara with English subtitles. Opens Friday Jan. 28 in Miami-Dade only: Coral Gables Art Cinema.