Twisted values and fear-driven Mob madness form the core of Rodrigo Pla’s hard-hitting “La Zona,” an impressive feature debut that sweeps the viewer into the horrors of vigilante justice, doing more than simply pitting the haves against the have-nots. Set within an exclusive gated community surrounded by slums in Mexico City, the pic tackles issues of privilege, responsibility and group mentality in subtler ways than descriptions might convey, finishing it all off with a punch. Certain to sweep the box office throughout Latin America, “La Zona” could find acceptance in arthouses north of the border.
Pristine lawns and immaculately tended homes are first glimpsed reflected in the darkened windows of an SUV, the camera elegantly gliding through this sanctum of privilege until it climbs the walls, topped with barbed wire, for a view of slums stretching to the horizon. During a freak storm, a billboard topples onto the wall, creating a breach exploited by three youngsters set on a quick and easy robbery.
Confronted by a resident, the burglars kill the woman but can’t stop a maid from raising the alarm, and in a split second, neighbors come running, shooting dead two of the thieves and accidentally felling a security guard. Miguel (Alan Chavez) escapes into the alleyways, and the community raises a general alarm, though when city cop Rigoberto (Mario Zaragoza) comes, he’s told there was no incident. The residents have an agreement with the city that their independent contractors patrol themselves, and they’re intent on handling this inhouse.
Sixteen-year-old Alejandro (Daniel Tovar) is shaken by the killings and uncomfortable with the vigilante intensity of dad Daniel (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) and the other residents. They agree to handle things on their own at a community meeting, but then begin to turn on each other when it’s suspected a resident tipped off the outside police. Meanwhile, Alejandro discovers Miguel in the basement, and, while initially wary, he realizes the pathetic, frightened kid needs to get out of La Zona if he’s to remain alive.
Among scripter Laura Santullo’s achievements is her refusal to see anything in strictly black-and-white terms, especially among the main characters. She doesn’t downplay the burglars’ criminal intentions, and by providing a brief background to Daniel’s reasons for seeking justice outside official channels, she makes him a more three-dimensional figure. Still, the message is clear: The residents of La Zona think their wealth sets them apart from everyone else, entitling them to special consideration and even power over life and death.
But the system is tainted across the board, and even those trying to fight against it, like righteous resident Diego (Andres Montiel) or inspector Rigoberto, discover they’re no match for such an ingrained mindset. Pla finds the perfect balance between the eerie perfection of La Zona and the rottenness at its core, refusing to let anyone off either by action or inaction. Though the ending keeps a properly dark tone, a more powerful, and chilling, finale would really pack a wallop had Pla cut the last 10 minutes.
Perfs are universally strong, though a bigger talking point will be Antonio Munohierro’s pitch-perfect art direction. Whether designing a verdant golf course in full view of desperate slums or the sewers where Manuel attempts his escape, his preternaturally perfect community becomes as much a part of the action as the characters themselves. Production values are top-notch, and fine lensing modulates between calm gracefulness, troubled handheld and the B&W graininess of La Zona’s passively menacing surveillance cameras.