Rodrigo Plá's "The Zone": Even Better Than The Real Thing By Pamela Biénzobas

in 32nd Toronto International Film Festival

by Pamela Biénzobas

The hardships of reality are best digested when cloaked in exaggeration, rather than presented in a naturalistic portrait. Most artistic genres are actually defined by their particular ways of representing, rather than reflecting, the “real world”, and their codes allow us to read a work — a film, a book, a painting — from a certain distance, which usually protects us.

From the very beginning, the Mexican film The Zone (La Zona), by the Uruguayan director Rodrigo Plá, suggests we are (at least) at one remove from the society which is being depicted in the film. The camera movements, the lensing and the mise-en-scène suggest an aesthetic much closer to the anticipation or even science-fiction codes. The development soon plunges us into a classical manhunt thriller.

What’s ironic about The Zone is that it actually does not distort reality very much. The screenplay — the plot, the dialogue — would hardly vary if The Zone were a social melodrama. The same material could have been turned into an open essay — either political or dramatic — on social inequality. But the unnatural tone allows an emotional detachment completely opposed to the classical manipulation of the social melodrama. The Zone does not preach about the dreadful gap in Mexican society; it doesn’t even introduce it. It takes it for what it is: The actual state of things, and the perfect setting for the film’s action.

Three underprivileged youngsters suddenly have the opportunity to enter a highly protected residential area of well-off people (not extremely rich, however; The Zone is far from revealing the widest gaps) for an impromptu robbery. They break into a house, and four people wind up dead: A resident is killed by the boys; two of the boys are killed by a guard, and another neighbor mistakenly shoots the guard. Miguel, the only surviving boy, flees the scene, but finds himself trapped within the community.

The problem is that the residents cannot let the news of the incident get out; they have obtained a special status allowing them a certain autonomy so long as no violence occurs in the community; if they call the authorities, they’ll lose this privilege. They must therefore deal with this internally — find and dispose of the third teenager — and ensure the “pact of silence” is respected by the entire community.

Alejandro, a teenager from within the community, is originally an enthusiastic participant in the manhunt; the adrenalin-rush of his vigilante fantasy feels like a game. Until he finds Miguel in his own basement, and almost instinctively keeps him hidden, eventually bonding with this unexpected peer who is being hunted by everyone else, including Alejandro’s father.

Meanwhile, a fist-happy but quite incorruptible policeman insists on investigating, thus threatening the community’s plans. And Miguel’s mother and girlfriend (who saw him climb inside the community) are also worried about his disappearance.

Despite the fable-like feel, The Zone’s moral is sarcastically ambiguous. Yes, there are a few caricatured characters representing extreme positions, but they have enough internal contradictions (such as the policeman) to read as much more gray than black or white.

Avoiding social dissertation and the usual aesthetics of misery, this occasionally conventional thriller ends up being a socially aware and political piece precisely because of its apparent detachment (if only in tone) from a portrait that is ultimately perfectly naturalistic. How exaggerated is a self-contained community — just like so many real-estate developments in the American continent — surrounded by a huge wall and guarded by a private security company, that has obtained a certain level of legal autonomy as long as its events remain within certain limits?

More than the death itself of four people — one of their own, one of their loyal workers, and two “enemies” — the community is shocked and disturbed by the threat that these deaths pose to their way of life, and does not hesitate in going all the way to protect it. Any distortion there?