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New Release Review - Southern District

A once prosperous single mother struggles to maintain the lavish lifestyle her family is accustomed to.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: Juan Carlos Valdivia

Starring: Ninón del Castillo, Pascual Loayza, Nicolás Fernández



An Englishman's home is his castle, goes the saying. It would seem the same can be said of a Bolivian woman, in this case Carola (del Castillo), the matriarch of an upper class family in La Paz. At least they once were upper class. Carola is living on credit and can't accept that due to recent political and social upheavals, she's now got less money to her name than many of Bolivia's indigenous Aymara people, who she's been raised to feel superior to.
Things are so bad that the family's live in Aymara butler/chauffeur/cook, Wilson (Loayza), hasn't been paid in six months, but he's too much of a nice guy to make anything of this financial oversight. Besides, after being in Carola's employ for 25 years, he's come to think of her as a friend as much as an employer. She feels the same way, but her inbred racism and snobbery deny her the ability to admit so.
When movies tackle the issue of prejudice and bigotry, it's rarely subtle. In Carola, writer-director Juan Carlos Valdivia presents us with a protagonist who is institutionally racist, classist and homophobic, but she's never portrayed as a cartoon villain, and indeed, we find ourselves sympathising with her plight, as she's essentially not a bad person, merely a product of an ignorant society. It's difficult for us to admit, but a very large section of those over the age of 50 today, in any part of the world, hold similar institutionalised prejudices.
The relationship between Carola and Wilson plays out like a brutally honest version of Driving Miss Daisy. When Wilson inquires about a plot of land Carola owns, thinking she may donate it to him in lieu of payment, she reveals her plans for the two to retire there together and "take care of each other." A lesser film might give us flashbacks to the start of Wilson's tenure, when he was a handsome young buck who drew the attention of a young Carola, both knowing such a relationship could never be allowed to ferment. Thankfully, Valdivia keeps their past ambiguous, allowing us to fill in the blanks.
There's a scene towards the end of the movie when Carola discovers Wilson has been using the family bathroom rather than the one in his own room. She reacts with disgust in a heartbreaking moment that says more about bigotry in a few seconds than the awful Oscar winner Crash did in its entire two hours.
I'm ashamed to admit that five minutes into Southern District I feared it would be a struggle. The almost soap opera-esque video aesthetic takes a while to get used, and Valdivia's constantly roaming camera at first seemed gimmicky. Two hours later I was disappointed when the movie ended, as I wanted to spend more time with these characters, and the camerawork made sense, circling the movie's characters like vultures waiting for their prey to finally cease breathing, a wonderful visual metaphor for Carola's plight.
Valdivia's film is clearly a comment on his country's political situation, but where most state of the nation movies are overblown and grand-standing, he keeps things confined to one house, one family, one mother, his drama quietly bubbling like an unattended pot of chili. Originally appearing at festivals in 2009, Southern District has finally found a UK distributor in Axiom, who release it on DVD and VOD on 26th January. Sadly, one of the year's best movies is denied a big screen outing.





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