La Zona (Rodrigo Plá, 2007, Spain/Mexico) & Déficit (Gael García Bernal, 2007, Mexico)

Two films originating from Mexico, both focusing on the increasing divide between that country’s haves and have-nots, but in radically differing ways.

La Zona, the debut feature by director Rodrigo Plá sets up a more artificial environment in which to explore the issues surrounding this subject. The titular ‘Zone’ is an exclusive area of Mexico City, walled off from the rest of the capital, filled with expansive American-style condominiums and tree lined boulevards, seemingly a Westernized idyll when compared to the packed slums just outside of its gates. The residents are naturally the more well-off classes able to afford such luxurious surroundings, though their constant fear of incursions into their particular Eden means that they are surrounded by closely-monitored CCTV cameras and their houses fitted with ridiculously loud alarm systems.

As we join the film, a thunderstorm leads to the collapse of one section of the Zone’s wall, creating a temporary way in for a group of teenage boys who decide to use the opportunity to burgle some of the houses of its rich residents. What they hadn’t banked upon was the response to their incursion; the Zone’s residents, in their paranoia at such an event, run a vigilante security force of their own, and seem to have no qualms with dealing with intruders in as brutal ways as possible.

Plá’s film is unmistakably polemical; the artifice of the Zone is illustrative of a less visible but all-too-real wall circling off the rich and poor in modern Mexico. While his message could seem a little preachy, the tight scripting and characterizations, plus a more subtle directorial style than, say, the overblown theatrics that fellow countryman Alejandro González Iñarritu has begun to foster, mean that La Zona gets its message across in a powerful, sympathetic way. Expect great things to come from Rodrigo Plá.

In stark aesthetic contrast to La Zona, Déficit, the directorial debut of Mexican cinema’s poster-boy Gael García Bernal, is a much lighter affair, though with similar thematic concerns. An obvious spin on the upper-class country house farce, in the tradition of Jean Renoir’s La Regle Du Jeu (1939) or Robert Altman’s Gosford Park (2001), Déficit takes aim at the spoiled scions of Mexico’s nouveau riches, giving them all just about enough rope to hang themselves. Bernal plays Cristobal, who is throwing a party for his friends at his parents’ large mansion, located just outside of Mexico City. They have money as his father is a famous economist, and Cristobal seems intent on following in his footsteps by planning to go off to Harvard in the autumn.

The guests begin to arrive, and it becomes clear that some are more welcome than others. Cristobal is placated when introduced to a beautiful Argentinian girl, who he seems intent on having his wicked way with, at least before the arrival of his actual girlfriend, who through a series of phoned misdirections seems never likely to find the place. The film is for the most part light and breezy, with only small hints of resentments beneath the exterior facade, but when things begin to go awry the tensions really begin to surface – what brother thinks of sister, what friends think of other friends, what the rich brats really think of the Asian gardener, and indeed what the central rich brat really thinks of himself, and the expectations that he finds himself unable to live up to.

An excellent ensemble cast keeps things flowing nicely, with moments of comedy and real charm. Bernal under-directs to the point of whimsy at times, but this ultimately is an exercise in mockery rather than satire so there is little need for flashiness. A low-key, personal project then, but an entertaining and somewhat poignant one.

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