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The Punishment (El Castigo)

Young couple have an emotional catharsis as their seven-year-old child goes missing in the woods - very simple and effective Chilean Argentinean drama premieres at the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival


Mateo (Nestor Cantillana), Ana (Antonia Zegers) and their seven-year-old son Lucas are driving through the dense and verdant Chilean forest in order to visit Ana’s parents for dinner. They have a very heated argument and leave their their small child behind for roughly two minutes, but when they return to pick him up the small Lucas has disappeared. The police are called and quickly begin a search for the missing boy. Meanwhile, the two despondent parents are left to argue, question each other’s parental skills and examine their very own relationship. Viewers don’t see the child and have to guess what the tragic argument entailed. That’s because begins immediately after Mateo and Ana have driven off.

This plot might ring bells with those who’ve seen Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless (2017). In the Russian film, the child who goes inexplicably missing because his parents are too busy with their respective lover. There is no extra marital affair in this Chilean Argentinean drama, instead both Mateo and Ana are mostly doting parents . But they have allowed something to fall through the cracks, and are now left desperately scrambling for a lot of answers. Ana is a very strict mother, while Mateo is far more permissive father. She accuses him of playing the hero while she has to carry the burdens of parenthood on her shoulders. She believes that she is perceived as “a bitch” because she is the one who has to make the tough decisions. Lucas isn’t a particularly easy child: he rebellious and his teachers suspects that he is ADHD. A scenario many families will recognise.

The titular punishment is dual: Ana and Mateo have punished Lucas by abandoning him in the woods, and now its is the child who is punishing his parents by running away, unleashing a flurry of reflections, accusations, uncomfortable and inconvenient truths.

This entire 86-minute film takes place in the woods, and it is mostly reflective and conversational. It relies on no more than three central characters: Mateo, Ana and a police officer. It could have become tedious and banal in inept hands. Such isn’t the case here. Rather, the narrative is allowed to breathe in all of its simplicity. There is barely any music, the filmmaker and the viewers are left to concentrate almost entirely on the script and the leading performances.

Both Cantillana and Zegers, two experienced Chilean actors, are very strong. But it is Zegers who stands out, blending motherly love with female frustration in equal measures. Her confession to her husband at the end of the film if both heartbreaking and liberating. Motherhood isn’t always a walk in the park. Ana is neither a saint nor a demon. And The Punishment is neither a melodrama nor an epic piece of filmmaking. Instead, it’s a film that excels in frankness. Its biggest achievement is to craft characters are entirely credible and palpable. What happened to Mateo and Ana could happen to anyone.

The Punishment has just premiered in the Official Competition of the 26th Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival.

By Victor Fraga - 19-11-2022

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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