“By garnishing his docu-fiction with extra narrative elements he turns The Castle into an enjoyable curiosity that may not get everything out of its thematic depth, but is a time well spent in the Argentinian outback.”
Twelve rooms, six bathrooms, a large tract of land, a herd of cows and other livestock. And all that in the middle of the Argentinian Pampas. Justina inherited all this after the death of her former employer, for whom she worked as a housekeeper. There was only one condition: she must never sell it. So now she lives in it with her daughter Alexia, who dreams of being a racecar driver and has landed herself a job as a car mechanic in the shop of a friend in Buenos Aires. In the months leading up to them having to split up, they still have to deal with the extended family of Justina’s former employer, a long-distance lover, and runaway cows. Not to mention the crumbling mansion itself.
Director Martín Benchimol crossed paths with the two protagonists of The Castle while working on another film. Initially he didn’t take Justina, an indigenous woman, for the owner, revealing the class prejudice that will also reveal itself in the film. He became fascinated by the two women living alone in a huge house in the middle of nowhere, a place where you would normally not expect them given that they live in a society where social climbing is nearly impossible. Justina is a land owner, yet still regarded as a member of a social underclass. They have no money for the upkeep of the mansion, so they sell their cows one by one. The family of her boss drops by regularly to celebrate birthdays and the like, and condescendingly offer to let friends stay at the place so Justina can make some extra cash serving these friends.
Pinning down The Castle is hard, because while it is mostly a documentary about a mother-daughter relationship between two women who find themselves in an unusual situation, elements of horror films and fairy tales blend in with re-enacted scenes. Failing cell phone reception evokes the horror scenarios, while also serving as a representation of the difficulties in communication between the two. The tomboyish Alexia is clearly not in a place she wants to be, while Justina could never leave and fears the abyss once Alexia leaves for the capital.
Despite the dramatizations and the narrative that Benchimol carves out of the story of Justina and Alexia Olivo, the documentary form of The Castle is its strongest suit, in particular because of the cinematography of Nico Miranda and Fernando Lorenzale. Mostly filmed in an observational style, but always from a distance and often through doorframes, the perfectly framed and lit shots evoke the aforementioned horror genre. Contrasting this is the lighthearted score which conjures up some kind of dark fairy tale. These added layers are much needed, because even though Benchimol manages to draw some interest out of the situation, the story of Justina and her daughter is probably not captivating enough to justify the 75-minute runtime on its own. By garnishing his docu-fiction with extra narrative elements he turns The Castle into an enjoyable curiosity that may not get everything out of its thematic depth, but is a time well spent in the Argentinian outback.
(c) Image copyright: Mayra Bottero / Gema Films, Sister Productions