Santiago Loza answering questions at Latinbeat Opening Night screening of La Paz. Photo: Julie Cunnah

Class, familial relationships, and mental illness… These themes and more are explored in Argentinean filmmaker Santiago Loza's sublime La Paz, which opened Latinbeat over the weekend at Film Society of Lincoln Center. The story opens with man named Liso leaving a psychiatric hospital to meet his indulgent parents at their comfortable home. After the confines of the institution, he struggles to re-adapt to his middle class life, though slowly, things begin to change. As Liso searches for a new balance, the discomforting aspects of his privileged life slowly emerge.

Loza makes his return to Latinbeat, having screened films in the series since 2000. He spoke with FilmLinc Daily ahead of the film's North American premiere. He shares how his previous film, The Lips, inspired him to re-visit the subject of poverty and how the middle class frequently romanticizes the topic. He also shares his thoughts on cinema vs. the stage. As a successful playwright, Loza is in the forefront of the country's thriving theater scene, but talks about why La Paz is particularly a good fit for the big screen.

FilmLinc Daily: Congratulations on having La Paz open this year's Latinbeat. What inspired this story of this troubled man from a well to do family?

Santiago Loza: The inspiration came from several places. On one hand, it came from a personal “inner space” about 10 years ago when I made a film called The Stranger (El Extraño). The main character goes through a phase in which he's outside the world—he just can't be a part of it. I felt like I wanted to go back to that story again and that particular aspect of that character again, but from a more light-filled place. And on the other hand, I was interested in people… who are artists and belong to the middle class that also employ a maid, which is a common thing in Argentina. They live in people's homes, but they often don't have a relationship with the family, but they raise their children. I was interested in exploring this relationship between the domestic servant and this young man [in La Paz] who has become invisible in some ways.

FD: And there is clearly a class element in this story, which is something that has been present with your past films…

SL: My 2010 film The Lips (Los Labios, co-directed by Iván Fund] dealt with the subject of poverty, but it's not a movie about poverty. The people who saw it felt very touched by this, so [my co-dirctoer and I] came out thinking about the perspective and ideas people have about poverty. In a way, the movie portrays with irony this romanticized idea of poverty. Some in the middle class have this concept that poverty is a solution. It's a tricky way of looking at it because at the same time there's criticism of this romanticized idea of poverty. So, I wanted to take a critical look at this as a concept but to do so with sympathetic eyes. La Paz is very warm and I'm not poking fun at this middle class view of looking at poverty. Nevertheless, this middle class view of poverty doesn't correlate to the way people living in poverty view themselves, so I wanted to show this disconnect. 

I also want to tell a story about this particular character and I'm trying to map that journey. At the same time, I see the film as a bit of a melodrama. The archetypes are there: The domestic worker, the father with a gun, etc., so I also see a hint of that in this film. All of my previous films are cryptic and closed and not accessible to most audiences, but for this one, I wanted the opposite. I want a film that's accessible, like a fable with a simple story at the beginning, but that still has layers to be uncovered.

A scene from La Paz.

FD: The parents are obviously concerned with their son. They go to meet him when he leaves the psychiatric hospital and are attentive, but they do things that are simply, in my opinion, counter-productive to his recovery. They're indulgent and spoil him almost like a little boy. Is the film also a commentary on child-rearing?

SL: It's possible to interpret it that way since he's so vulnerable especially at the beginning. He's going back to his parents and is entering a second childhood. I wasn't interested in showing what happened to him before going into the hospital or dealing with the causes of his hospitalization or show any psychological insight into what he's going through. I see the psychological breakdown as a “wound of the soul.” I feel that if I did explain the reasons of his hospitalization, it would be entering a different realm that would break the fictional telling of the story. Fiction allows for no boundaries. People are uncomfortable sometimes not having explanations, but I decided I wanted that ambiguity there. 

In the end, the kid is affected by how his parents are, but I didn't want to pass any judgment on them because they're unhappy characters themselves. So I'm not going to judge. I don't know where the trap starts because they're all in some kind of pain. All of the characters have their limitations and flaws. I wanted to make sure love is present in the portrait of the boy, but they're limited in what they can do. They're loving but are limited and even unhelpful. 

There's one thing I learned about this film and I didn't realize it until people started telling me, but it appears to be true. The son is only able to have a relationship with his grandmother and the maid. The two characters are not asking anything of him, so he feels no pressure from them and can have a comfortable relationship with them. I didn't realize that myself.

FD: There is a parallel to Chilean filmmaker Sebastián Silva's 2009 film, The Maid. The children in this affluent household in Santiago seem to have a strained relationship with their parents, but are close to this maid who is instrumental in their upbringing…

SL: In some countries there is a bigger class struggle, which is central in some stories from Latin America. In The Maid, you see her from her point of view and you see the maid a lot on screen, but in this movie, the film is centered on Liso. He idolizes her and you see her in a special way. Bolivians are generally looked down upon in Argentina and people don't look at Bolivia as a dream place to go to, but he does. So he's not like everyone else. He has a fantasy about where the maid comes from and her background. 

Generally speaking, portraying class differences head-on is not something that's very en vogue right now in Latin America; it's something that was a popular topic in the 70s and 80s, so I had the challenge of how to tackle this topic without being cliche.

A scene from La Paz.

FD: Back in Buenos Aires, you're also very well known as a playwright in addition to being a filmmaker. How do you traverse those two mediums and when do you decide that a story is best told via the stage or on the big screen?

SL: My desire to make a movie comes when I want to express something that can't be done through words. I like writing plays, particularly, because of their literary aspect. So when you try to transpose that into film, it doesn't translate correctly. What plays have given me over the years is the ability to write accessible work, which is something I wouldn't have ever thought I could do. It would have horrified me to think I'd do that years ago, but I'm now excited about connecting with many people through film.

Buenos Aires is boiling over with theatrical activity right now. Some actors I work with in theater I also want to work with in film, so there is some cross over. But, Argentinean theater is actually more popular than film right now, with a much bigger following. Auteur theater is bigger than auteur cinema. A small production can easily run three years, whereas a film may only play a week.

FD: Could La Paz be a stage cross-over?

SL: No… I wanted this film to be deeply cinematic. There's something that profoundly moves me in cinema and that's the face of the actors. You can't do that in theater. You can't capture the entire world in a face in theater—that rawness of emotion that a face can convey [on the big screen]. What does do that in theater is the word, but I love the gaze that cinema can convey.