Berlinale 2023 Review: El Castillo (2023) (The Castle)

Berlinale presents San Sebastián award winner El Castillo (The Castle) a strangely affecting mixture of documentary and fiction by Martin Benchimol.


by Alexa Dalby

El Castillo (The Castle)

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The non-speaking centre of the film is a magnificent folly – a huge mansion with turrets like a Camelot castle – standing in land in the depths of the Argentinian pampas.

Rattling around in its many unused rooms is Justina, who inherited it from its glamorous socialite former owner. It was intended as a thank-you for being her faithful housekeeper for many years and caring for her during her final illness. With Justina lives her androgynous daughter Alexia, permanently glued to her mobile phone, obsessed with wanting to escape to Buenos Aires to be a car mechanic and train to be an F4 driver. Both are bulky in build. Justina’s broad face is wonderfully full of her life experience. Alexia’s is hidden by her baseball cap. They are real people.

The castle was left to Justina on condition she never sells it. She has changed nothing since then. But she has no income to pay for the expensive repairs it increasingly needs, other than selling the cows one by one that graze on the large area of land surrounding it. The enormous building has a leaking roof (viewers of Escape to the Chateau will be familiar with this problem) and is fast becoming derelict despite Justina’s hard work in looking after it. What was intended as a gift has become a millstone.

A much-cuddled bottle-fed lamb and a tiny piglet scamper freely on the polished wood floors, as well as the domestic cat and dog. Justina treats them all with great kindness.

It’s an isolated, lonely life. The outside world is an intermittent mobile connection away. Justina is an indigenous woman, put-upon and patronised. Daughter Alexia is the younger generation, who cannot wait to enjoy city life. Only Alexia can drive the pick-up truck that goes with the house, so Justina cannot even get out to the nearest town, making her life there even more solitary. Her unreliable male friend (or husband) is just a voice on the mobile.

Relatives of the mansion’s original owner descend uninvited and en masse at weekends. They continue to treat their uncomplaining hostess like a maid. Alexia is the only one to object, though privately. The relatives obviously feel entitled, that the house is theirs by right, and they ignore Justina’s ownership as just a temporary blip for their family. It’s the Argentinian class and racial hierarchy in action before our eyes.

This sensitive film is an almost seamless mixture of documentary and dramatised reconstruction, shaped into a fictional narrative. It is the first feature film for Martin Benchimol, previously a documentary director. He spent six years getting to know Justina and Alexia before making the film.

Benchimol describes how the film happened, “I met the protagonists while I was making my previous film, The Dread. We turned down a narrow dirt road and stumbled upon the castle. I was amazed to find this huge old mansion with castle towers sitting in the middle of nowhere. When I knocked on the door Justina came out dressed in her work clothes. The first thing I asked was if I could meet the owner. That story reveals in itself one of the film’s main themes: my class prejudice made me blind to the fact that Justina herself might be the owner…

“As in many Latin American countries, social climbing is practically impossible in Argentina,
there is an idea that economic salvation only happens thanks to extraordinary events. Justina’s
story represents a mistake, a crack in the system. It is completely disruptive to comprehend that
she, a working-class woman from Chaco-Paraguay, could be the owner of a property with the
characteristics of the castle.”

The Castle could be viewed as an allegory of Argentinian society – class-ridden, disintegrating, only held together by the hard work of the stoic indigenous working class, coping with change as young people embrace their access to the outside world and the ‘old guard’ slowly has to give way to the new.

But what is fascinating in The Castle is the relationship between mother and daughter, their love for each other despite huge differences that could have been insurmountable, and the way the overwhelming sadness of the film changes to a kind of unspoken hope when their relationship takes a surprising turn.

It’s a short feature, at only 78 minutes, seeming disjointed and episodic at times, probably due to filming only being during Benchimol’s periodic visits. It was clearly made over a long time, as we can see that winter morphs into summer. The castle itself is a ruin that dominates the lives of these two strong women from different generations. Initially it may seem like a slight quasi-documentary, but there is so much more to its true story that is really moving and memorable.

The Castle premiered at the San Sebastián International Film Festival, where it won the WIP Latam competition, and premiered in its finished version at the Berlin Film Festival on 19 February 2023. It is distributed by LuxBox.