Sunday, July 27, 2008

Hola Mexico: La Zona

Hmm, when a fortified border wall plays an important role in a contemporary Mexican film, could it possibly have some greater symbolic significance? In this case, the wall in question is not between America and Mexico, but the protective border surrounding the mother of all gated communities in Mexico City. Screening as part of the Hola Mexico Film Festival (which concludes on Sunday), director Rodrigo Plá’s La Zona (trailer here) shows the tragic consequences when that wall is breached.

Teenaged Alejandro lives with his parents in the Zone, a protected oasis of suburban safety, literally walled off from the urban blight which surrounds it. Their wall and the private security force which keep watch along it, are there to keep out the riff-raff, including the corrupt cops of the outside world. However, one fateful dark and stormy night, a lightning strike compromises part of the wall. Three smalltime crooks immediately capitalize on this larcenous opportunity, crossing into the Zone. As you might expect, things go awry.

The exact details are initially kept murky, as rumors run through the Zone like wildfire. What the audience knows for certain though, is that one resident and two intruders are dead, with the third at large, somewhere in their community. Rather than call in the outside authorities and risk losing their special autonomous legal status, the residents of the Zone decide to take the law into their own hands, looking to Alejandro’s father Daniel to lead their manhunt. Simultaneously, they must fend off the investigation of Rigoberto, a bent city cop, who picked the wrong day to try to go straight. It all makes for a rude coming of age for Alejandro, as he comes face to face with the scared young fugitive, on his sixteenth birthday.

La Zona is not subtle expressing its point of view. However, despite the film’s radicalized class consciousness, it is hard to fully condemn the residents of the Zone. They fear they are surrounded by criminals just waiting to rob and murder them, and they are proved right five minutes into the film. They consider the outside police hopelessly corrupt and again are ultimately vindicated in their judgment.

Indeed, Plá has crafted a pretty taut thriller that is not weighted down by its ideological baggage, effectively building tension, until suffering from a third act collapse and completely flat denouement. Oh well, these things happen. With only two films under his belt, Plá is already a darling of the international festival circuit and shows real promise in La Zona. Along the way, he gets some impressive performances out of his cast, particularly Daniel Giménez Cacho as Alejandro’s conflicted father and Mario Zaragoza as Rigoberto, the troubled cop. Flawed but interesting, La Zona has a lot of the elements working quite well, before it just hits the wall, so to speak.