Writer-director Juan Carlos Valdivia aims to make the ultimate statement on the current condition of his native Bolivia in “Southern District,” an overblown departure from his previous feature, “American Visa.” Conceiving the new film as a chain of largely single-take moving shots of varying geometries, Valdivia has uneasily married elaborate formalism with a standard tale of the decaying upper classes in La Paz’s wealthy Zona Sur district. Some will be seduced by camera moves that make Max Ophuls look like a piker, but many will feel a triteness underlying this cinema dance. Buyers of high-art material may show mild interest.Although Latin American cinema has developed a remarkably rich tradition of filmmaking that treats form and content with the same weight and concern, Valdivia’s bid to join the circle of Lisandro Alonso, Lucrecia Martel, Carlos Reygadas and Nicolas Pereda (to name only a few) falls short of the mark.This is because Valdivia’s insistent camera strategies, sometimes involving 360 degree pans or tracks, or pans and tracks, or swooping crane moves, or even shots that begin upside down and end right-side up, presume a weightiness to what is being observed that’s rarely there. Unlike experimental filmmakers who begin with form and a key set of ideas, “Southern District” creates huge camera statements to translate a banal domestic situation.Stripped of their razzle-dazzle, the matters inside the multistory house owned by divorcee Carola (Ninon Del Castillo) have been depicted in one variation or another in countless films about rich Latin American clans. That this one is Bolivian does make some difference, in that maid Marcelina (Viviana Condori) and butler/cook Wilson (Pascual Loayza) are both Aymara Indians. And it’s clear they are really running the operation of the house, yet obviously are serfs to their white masters. Little Andres (Nicolas Fernandez) stays home, cuddles with mom, talks to his invisible friend, dubbed “Spielberg,” and retreats to his tree house. Older brother Patricio (Juan Pablo Koria) thinks Andres is turning into a wuss, and meanwhile is having lusty sex with quasi-g.f. Carolina (Luisa De Urioste) in his bedroom — and even reminds mom to buy him condoms. Sister Bernarda (Mariana Vargas) is openly lesbian, making love to ersatz g.f. Erika (Glenda Rodriguez) in the secluded backyard garden and constantly feuding with mom — who dismisses Erika as a half-breed — about life aims and dressing as befits one’s class. As for Carola, she is a woman concerned with maintaining her profile as a matriarch, but she’s running low on cash and taking on debt. Del Castillo’s perceptive performance is all about keeping up appearances while decadence oozes all around her. As Wilson, Loayza stays low-key until a sudden break with routine involving an unexpected funeral, but any real revelations at this point aren’t really coming in this film. “Southern District” observes the fissures between Bolivia’s segregated white and indigenous groups but with no fresh insight, which no amount of cinematographic histrionics can provide (d.p. Paul de Lumen pulls out all the stops with the Red camera system). Production designer Joaquin Sanchez turns Carola’s house into a character; Cergio Prudencio’s music choices are obvious.
A Cinenomada presentation. (International sales: Shoreline Entertainment, Los Angeles.) Produced by Gabriela Maire. Directed, written by Juan Carlos Valdivia.
Camera (Technicolor), Paul de Lumen; editor, Ivan Layme; music, Cergio Prudencio; production designer, Joaquin Sanchez; costume designers, Melany Zuazo, Roxana Toledo; sound (Dolby Digital), Ramiro Fierro; sound designer, Fierro; associate producer, Ximena Valdivia; assistant director, Alvaro Manzano; casting, Soledad Ardaya. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema, competing), Jan. 22, 2010. (Also in Berlin Film Festival -- Panorama.) Running time: 108 MIN.
(Spanish, Aymara dialogue)