The Castle / El Castillo
(Argentina/France, 78 min.)
Dir. Martín Benchimol
The Castle has at its center a remarkable story, and in the adept hands of director, screenwriter and cinematographer Martín Benchimol, it takes the shape of a moody, taut docu-fiction. Justina and her daughter Alexia are two Indigenous women who have inherited a massive, castle-shaped mansion in the countryside of Argentina. Both were raised in the home as indentured servants to its wealthy owner, who bequeathed the beautiful beast of a building to Justina some years earlier. House poor, the two now struggle to maintain the expansive property, which is in varying states of disrepair, while earning smatterings of money here and there, selling cattle and items from inside the house online.
Much in the same way the regal form of the pair’s home belies its quotidian contents, The Castle is a documentary film dressed up in beguiling elements of fabulous fiction. Benchimol has sculpted the real lived experience of Justina and Alexia into beautifully shot, precision-paced and dramatically lit scripted scenes, mixed with sequences that are impromptu and un-staged (a spat here, TV-watching there, etc). The result is a gorgeous genre-bending film that renders the everyday fantastic.
Alexia dreams of becoming a Formula One racer and spends much of her time watching videos about car engines on her phone, playing a racing video game and driving her cherished souped-up truck through a home-made track in a nearby field. Justina keeps busy tending to the cattle, polishing silver, dusting the castle’s collection of curiosities, and bottle-feeding an exceptionally cute, scene stealing baby goat. Cats, piglets, chickens and goats regularly punctuate the exquisite slowness of The Castle as they pounce, hop, and bumble about the many-roomed, much-cluttered mansion.
The Castle looks and feels like a slow burn thriller at moments, yet it is also reminiscent of the idiosyncrasy of Grey Gardens without the neurosis, and La Cienega’s contemplation of class without the pathos. It is a stunning film that creates a vibrant space to consider class and power, and the filmmakers have wisely tossed out the info-baggage that accompanies more formulaic docs with a bold, hybrid creative treatment of actuality. The Castle defies easy classification: since it isn’t magical realism, what should we call this direction in fiction-non-fiction cinema? Perhaps it’s fantastic realism.
The understated performances of Justina and Alexia, the blue-drenched lighting and deep depth of field, extreme long shots conspire as a kind of family gothic mise-en-scene, yet a bubbly score and moments of levity complicate this core tone, perhaps to remind us this is still real life, not a still life.
One uproarious scene comes to mind, when the family of the wealthy, deceased homeowner arrive for their regular visits to the premises, ones in which Justina is somehow cajoled into hosting the large, obnoxious group. By this point in the film we have taken up residency with the two women and settled into the carefully crafted setting and tone the filmmakers have fashioned for us, only to have it all burst by this loud, demanding family, who even decide to change the lightbulbs on a chandelier, without asking the new home owner. It is a charged scene that brings us face to face with the class divide otherwise subtly gestured to in the rest of the film, reminding us of the real life socio-economic power hierarchies that structure the two women’s lives. Yet even here “the real” is not what it appears: it turns out the family in the film actually belongs to Benchimol, who had his relatives play at creating actuality, a deft decision in step with the rest of this striking cinematic citadel.
The Castle premiered at the 2023 Berlinale.