Il Castillo (2023) Berlinale 2023

February 19th, 2023
Author: Meredith Taylor

Dir.: Martin Benchimol; Cast: Justine Olivo, Alexia Caminos Olivo; Argentina/France 2022, 77 min.

The first solo feature film from Argentine director Marin Benchimol, whose short films have garnered prizes on the festival circuit, is a tight little dark comedy, set deep in the Argentine Pampa, where time has stood still, and class divisions are as blatant as in the era of Juan and Eva Peron.

Sadly, no one is now king of this colossal castle. Once again the inheritance is just a poisoned challis: a once splendid building left by the owner to her former house-keeper Justina (J. Olivo) – with the obligation never to sell the property – the poor woman cannot afford to pay for the upkeep, let alone the much-needed new roof and plumbing system.

The former owner has paid a cruel trick on her devoted employee who she still treats like a servant and smiles benignly on the many photos in a house which is now a burden to Justina and her daughter Alexia (A.C. Olivo). Her family now live in the city, and only comes to El Castillo to celebrate family anniversaries and large gatherings. Meanwhile Justina and her daughter Alexia (A C Olivo) are saddled with a white elephant.

The two new owners might have shared a symbiotic relationship back in the day, but now Alexia is grown up and wants to leave home to work as a car mechanic in the city, with a view to a career a as a Formula Four racing driver. With this in mind, she has installed a play station console and huge screen in her room, and practises on this dummy race track, while stuck in the Pampa with her demanding Mum. It seems the umbilical cord is still attached: when she finally escapes the mansion in her battered car, unforeseen circumstances see her phoning home to her mother for help.

Meanwhile Justine is forced to sell off the livestock, one by one, with the wealthy family making improbable proposals to solve the crisis: there is no doubt they are just waiting for Justine to give up and leave. Justine’s love life is like a running gag, her husband/boyfriend always promising to come and visit, but bailing out at the last moment. Alexia, whose name her mother shouts whenever she gets stuck with a problem – ie. very often, finally makes it to the city, leaving poor Justina wondering whether she will remain an old retainer forever.

Benchimol keeps everything spare in a narrative that never overplays its hand. The interaction between mother and daughter is a portrait of bitter rivalry, with the loser facing a life-shattering defeat. Justina, living in a past, where she was treated like a human being by her mistress, is now at a loss in a fast-moving technological world. The wealthy family look on in quiet satisfaction, during their sporadic visits, having adjusted successfully to their new way of life.

Nico Miranda and Fernando Lorenzale evoke a Henry James like setting of decay and destructive emotions, The colours are saturated perfectly capturing the languid downhill road ahead. Alexia’s failed attempt to escape is symbolic of the emotional cue de sac the two women are caught in. A sad variation on the “Odd-Couple” theme. Intriguing and highly entertaining modern fairytale, if not always successfully structured. AS


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