While police corruption and the divide between rich and poor might not be original subject material in recent Latin American cinema, Uruguayan-born director Rodrigo Plí¡ has crafted an innovative, compelling addition to the burgeoning genre with his debut feature, La Zona. As the film begins, the roaming camera tracks a white butterfly through a neighbourhood of pristine yards and gorgeous homes, before panning up a menacing barbed-wire fence to reveal the sprawling, dismal slums on the other side of the barrier. This is La Zona, a heavily fortified community in Mexico City that exists virtually outside of the law, thanks to the patronage of a judge who’s granted the wealthy residents privileged status and their own exclusive rights.
When a storm knocks over a billboard and creates a breach in the fence, three young men from the barrio take advantage of the opportunity for a smash and grab, breaking into an elderly woman’s home to rip her off. When she surprises them with a gun, things go tragically wrong, and four people end up dead. The residents of the community, who may lose their special status if there is violence in the compound, soon realise that one of the offenders is still trapped on their side of the fence.
Desperate to keep the police at bay, they collectively decide to hide the violence from the police and to launch a manhunt to find the fugitive themselves. Any voices raised in opposition to the plan are sharply silenced by the majority. Plí¡ intersperses the film with CCTV footage of the fortress community, emphasising its enforced isolation and the siege mentality that consumes its inhabitants. Those who object to the majority’s decisions are prevented from leaving the zone, trapped inside as surely as the intruder who has become the residents’ prey.
That prey is 16-year-old Miguel; young, poor and out of his depth, he doesn’t stand a chance against the bloodthirsty residents and the compromised police. While the police captain is initially determined to investigate the killings in La Zona, his motivation has as much to do with pride and his own dislike of the residents as it does with any notion of justice. Regardless of motivation, however, his determination can do little in the face of widespread corruption and the ingrained belief that the lives of the rich are worth infinitely more than those of the poor.
What’s so disturbing about the film is that it lies within the realm of human possibility. Though the community itself may be exaggerated, it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a society in which the haves live in isolation from the have-nots, with their own laws and social order. The mob mentality that consumes the zone’s residents, who are furious at anyone and anything that threatens their insulated existence, is all too realistic, while neither the poor nor the rich trust the cops to bring anyone to justice. A suspenseful and stomach-churning thriller, La Zona conjures up a bleak but riveting picture of humanity.