CIFF 2010: Southern District (Zona Sur, 2009)

Director/Screenwriter: Juan Carlos Valvidia

2010 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you want to learn how the other (upper class) half lives in Bolivia, Southern District can show you in minute detail. Visually arresting—something I’m coming to expect from South American films these days—director/screenwriter Juan Carlos Valvidia turns his acute eye on the fading, as one character puts it, of 500 years of dominance by the descendants of the Spanish conquistadors.

The movie takes place almost entirely within the grand old hacienda in the posh Southern District of La Paz in which matriarch Carola (Ninón del Castillo) grew up and is just about done raising her three children. Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria) and Bernarda (Mariana Vargas) are college students, but Carola must have had a change-of-life baby with her now ex-husband. Andrés (Nicolás Fernández) is an imaginative 6-year-old who follows Carola’s native butler Wilson (Pascual Loayza) around, imitating everything he does and asking him, Marcellina (Viviana Condori) the maid, and a local farmer who sells the household cheese (“from the Altiplano!”) through the barred gates of the hacienda what they wanted to be when they were his age.

After 25 years of service, Wilson has become something of a platonic husband to Carola. He knows her wardrobe so precisely that he is able to pull a handbag out for her simply by having her name the designer, and he knows that the senora will ask for vinegar the minute he puts his spicy noodles on the dinner table. But familiarity brings its own problems—Wilson has a family back in his mountain village to support, and Carola hasn’t paid him his wages in six months. Indeed, Carola owes money all over town, and Wilson has to scrounge change from the children to buy bread and pay the dry cleaner. Carola’s unspecified job clearly is not paying her enough to keep up with her extravagant lifestyle.

Carola believes in the old values of femininity (declaring women’s liberation to be the worst thing ever to happen to women), style, and white supremacy. She overindulges Patricio, buying him condoms and a new car when he loses the old one in a card game, and frankly telling her sister Rosario (Ximena Alvarez) that she’s in love with Patricio and thinks mothers should save their sons the lifelong trauma having their first sexual encounter with a prostitute or common girl and initiate their sons into sex themselves. Patricio believes in machismo and warns Andrés away from the sissy pursuits of cooking and cleaning that Wilson performs. We also see him in one too many scenes having sex with his girlfriend (Luisa De Urioste) under his mother’s roof, with her approval. Bernarda is having a lesbian affair with a “half-breed” college girl (Glenda Rodriguez) from the Northern District and plays the rebel to Carola’s insistence that she dress like a woman, but she gives in fairly easily to her mother’s demands and seems to be trying lesbianism on like the latest fashion.

This description makes this family seem thoroughly loathsome, but there is something so easy about their relationships—and Andrés is the wonderful heart of the family that keeps them human—that their decline seems, despite all odds, rather sad. It would be easy to focus on the racism, privilege, and petty injustices served upon Wilson (who, by the way, claims his wife is worse than Carola), but Valvidia ensures that we see the beauty, too. The lush grounds, filled with calla lilies for centerpieces and enormous, spreading greenery that was grown from seed, emphasize a certain aesthetic graciousness that can’t be ignored easily. Valvidia uses a rather odd, restless camera to envelope us in their story. The slow 360-degree pans of each scene almost never cease, and his crane shots allow us to see the house as a singular entity in its immediate and distant surroundings. He frames the inhabitants of the hacienda staring out of their tastefully barred windows, pulling his camera back to emphasize their isolation from the reality around them.

These isolating techniques cause claustrophobia, and eventually feel rather suffocating. I felt an actual, physical release when Wilson leaves the hacienda against Carola’s direct orders to attend to an emergency in his village, with Andrés as a stowaway. On the road, the harassment Wilson experiences at a checkpoint shows the real situation of the native population and the need to disassemble the apparatus of power Carola represents. A brief scene in the village is too breathtaking to describe. I will just say that the power exerted by the Andes Mountains trumps anything the Spaniards had to offer and shows exactly why native culture has survived.

Southern District is a film in the grand tradition of Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Despite attempts at keeping up appearances, an era of concentrated privilege is passing. Judging from the ending, an only slightly assimilated native population of Bolivia seems poised to come into its own. This film is a fascinating, beautifully executed look at a country and culture I’d like to know better. l

Southern District screens Friday, October 15, 3:45 p.m. and Saturday, October 16, 8:45 p.m. (rush tickets only on Saturday). All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous CIFF coverage

Asleep in the Sun: Ingenious period film that shows the transformation of a troubled woman into someone whose personality her husband doesn’t recognize after a stay in a mental health clinic. (Argentina)

Tuesday, After Christmas: A beautifully photographed story of adultery poses a potent metaphor for Romania in its new prosperity. (Romania)

On Tour: A French TV producer returns from “exile” in America with a troupe of burlesque dancers to try to get back on top in this amiable, improvisational comedy. (France)

Circus Kids: The St. Louis Arches youth circus travels to Israel to join forces with the Galilee Circus to help bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews in this optimistic documentary. (Israel/USA)

The Matchmaker: Magical coming-of-age drama in which a teenage boy learns a message of love and tolerance from a Holocaust survivor. (Israel)

Ten Winters: Love will find a way, but it takes its time in this wise, realistic story of a young man and woman whose mutual attraction and friendship take some interesting turns over 10 years. (Italy)

Certified Copy: Elliptical tale of seduction by renowned director Abbas Kiarostami in which two strangers pretend to be a married couple in crisis. (Iran/Italy/France)

The Princess of Montpensier: The French Catholic persecution of Protestants forms the backdrop for this period drama about the travails suffered by a beautiful noblewoman desired by four men. (France/Germany)

Cameraman: The Life and Work of Jack Cardiff: Legendary British cinematographer Jack Cardiff and others who knew him discuss his career, including such highlights as The Red Shoes and Black Narcissus. (UK)

Waste Land: A moving examination of the positive transformation of workers in Brazil’s largest landfill when artist Vik Muniz comes to photograph them. (Brazil/USA)

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives: This 2010 Palme d’Or winner chronicles the final days of Boonmee using magic realism and experimental techniques to explore universal myths and symbols. (Thailand)

The Last Report on Anna: A dreamy, romantic film centering on Anna Kéthly, real-life Hungarian minister in exile, and a spy’s attempt to silence her by seducing her into returning to their communist-controlled country. (Hungary)

  • Sam Juliano spoke:
    15th/10/2010 to 5:58 pm

    “Southern District is a film in the grand tradition of Satyajit Ray’s The Music Room and Luchino Visconti’s The Leopard. Despite attempts at keeping up appearances, an era of concentrated privilege is passing. Judging from the ending, an only slightly assimilated native population of Bolivia seems poised to come into its own. This film is a fascinating, beautifully executed look at a country and culture I’d like to know better.”

    It’s this final paragraph that sizes up this film superlatively. Love to hear of the comparisons to THE MUSIC ROOM (one of my favorite films of all time) and of THE LEOPARD, another masterwork. The last excellent “clautrophobic” South American film we were traeted to was THE MAID, with an extraordinary performance from Catalina Saavedra. This of course isn’t the same focus, but both seem to usher in a new kind of South American cinema that resonates both emotionally and viscerally. It’s astounding how you are just rolling along, still penning excellent reviews for all the screenings!

  • Marilyn spoke:
    16th/10/2010 to 10:47 am

    Sam – I’m right with you on The Music Room. I really would love it if someone would mount a retro of Ray’s films. He needs to be discovered by a new generation of cinephiles.

    When I have films that inspire me and that I believe deserve a wider audience, it’s relatively easy to find the energy and words to talk about it. It’s much harder for me to write a pan. I’m very happy you’ve stuck with me and find what I’m doing worthwhile.

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