The Castle of Purity

01/30/2017

Mexico / 1972 / Spanish

Directed by Arturo Ripstein

With Claudio Brook, Rita Macedo, Arturo Beristáin

Still from 'The Castle of Purity'There’s this theory that cult leaders are very lonely people – even lonelier than the vulnerable types they attract – and that their power-tripping is just an extreme expression of the strategies we use every day to create and maintain relationships. If that’s the case, Gabriel Lima, the paranoid and autocratic paterfamilias of The Castle of Purity, and in whose cobwebbed house nearly the whole film is set, staves off his staggering loneliness by regulating everything that his family can say, do, and think.

Descending to Gabriel’s domain, we find ourselves in a very lonely place. Our first moments inside the house speak of cluttered poverty and staunch isolation pushed past their expiration dates; rust eats the old tin cans that, tied to a string, serve as the alarm for the front door; as we dolly across the inner courtyard, we see leaning wooden beams holding up walls and staircases, and a lot of spindly potted plants.

In the first scene, Gabriel works in what looks like an old-style apothecary lab at home with his three children. He tells them sternly to maintain silence while working. The teenaged boy and girl scoop measures of rat poison and distribute them into paper bags. The youngest girl, named Voluntad, stamps the bags with their company logo. Getting visibly bored of the drudgery, she walks over and upsets one of the cages containing test-rats. Her older brother slaps her and kills the escaped animal. The father wordlessly leads her to the basement where there’s a makeshift dungeon of barbed wire and wood, a chicken coop he built for his family. He locks the door and she sits down in the darkness.

Director Ripstein wastes no time immersing us in the dismal world of the film. Things are murky and unsettling straightaway, but felt from the beginning is the sense of there being a sick order to things. Everything has a solemn, ritualistic heaviness to it – routine, laws, duty. It’s not 1984, but more  a twisted extrapolation of the traditional family. The father’s manias for physical fitness and cleanliness are not that far off from those of a modern-day suburban homeowner – just taken a bit too far.

Gabriel is the only one who ever leaves the house, as he goes from shop to shop selling their homemade vermicide. The neighbors think he lives alone, so seldom is his family seen. His wife, Beatriz, has been with him in this house for eighteen years. Their children are named Voluntad (“Determination”), Porvenir (“Future”) and Utopia – cruelly ironic names, given their living conditions. During one of their midday lessons, Beatriz begins guardedly telling them an anecdote of her childhood spent in the outside world. Gabriel comes home and interrupts it, asking them to recite self-actualizing maxims from Goethe. All that the kids absorb is what he brings home and allows them to have.

Still from 'The Castle of Purity'The family talks also have shades of a messianic cult. Beatriz reads them Nostradamus prophecies, which Gabriel takes quite seriously, and can seemingly apply them endlessly to his vision of how their ways will supplant those of the outside. We feel bad for the children for not knowing anything besides their father’s loony interpretation. But there are cracks, of course: as they get older, they want more and more to explore what lies beyond the heavy doors. When Gabriel is taking out the trash, one day, the three kids make a dash for it, but only stand outside on the stoop until he yells at them to get back inside. Still, they have glimpsed it, and want more.

The eldest, Porvenir, plays a sexually-charged game of blind-man’s-bluff with the three females, wherein if he catches one of them, she has to pose as a statue of his choosing. Beatriz gives the children haircuts, keeping locks of hair from their childhood all together in a box. It’s a creepy, but in context oddly touching, connection to her kids that is separate from the tyranny of their father. She is enamored of his vision, resigned to his rage. She is obliged to submit to him physically whenever he wants, and she spends many of her lines justifying his unpredictable actions to the kids.

She is, of course, imprisoned too, both by him and by her belief in him. He comes home and tells her he has just slept with a virgin, decrying the lack of purity in the household. Men want their household to be their fantasy world, which they have the right to transgress, but is it ever enough? Is it ever pure enough? Gabriel wakes up screaming. He talks about the outside world, the problem of vermin, and compares rats and mice with people. He’s like a frustrated eugenicist, only able to practice his theories on animals. Their family business is both a means of making a living and a vindication of the man’s ideals.

When the kids play with their antique toys they look bored, hypnotized (or perhaps tired from their diet of potatoes), and certainly depressed by the continual rain. Beatriz notices the two eldest kids getting too physical with one another. Once, when they start wrestling, she quickly pulls Utopia off of Porvenir and into the other room. She seems concerned for them, and for what Gabriel would do if he saw it. His sexual jealousy, which forces his wife to stay indoors, also extends to his children. The relationship between the siblings is not surprising, given their physical and emotional isolation. Meanwhile their father wants to keep everyone conformed to his twisted idea of pure.

The grubby inspector, who comes to certify their home lab, gets too close to Utopia and talks to her suggestively while she tries to ignore him. After the man leaves, Gabriel flies into a rage at the girl and, as she screams, cuts off her hair. Like a holdover from the past age that the limescaled villa represents, both his sensitivities and values hearken back to the days of the total patriarch. There’s an old-world quality to the punishments, and everyone is trapped in his mental time-warp along with him.

Still from 'The Castle of Purity'Ripstein isn’t just mocking the extremes of authoritarian living, the cults and the hermit kingdoms, but also the more subtle or normalized incarnations of those same impulses. While he has an eye for the sensational, like Imamura he strives to redraw the tabloidy reality with layers, with textures of humanity. He looks for the different ideas and perspectives at play in any situation involving people, even if he doesn’t like all of them. It seems counterproductive, but as the character Gabriel gets more and more unhinged, he seems less and less of a monster; we can’t sympathize with his vision, of course, but he becomes nearly as pitiful as his miserable offspring, who have never known freedom or choice.

And a story like this isn’t, by default, all contemptible; in the right light it elicits manifold emotions. There’s always a gradient of abhorrence to be looked through. The documentary The Wolf Pack (2015), about a family that shared some similarities with this one, ends up – either genuinely or through artful filmmaking – being quite affirming, in spite of a few troubling aspects. Quite unlike the family in that film, Gabriel’s anemic paradise doesn’t encourage empowerment or achievement, but only serves to perpetuate the his own suffocating vision, to replicate his damaged psyche as faithfully as possible into the future.

The Castle of Purity is a swipe at both old patriarchy and the more recent atomization of cultures into closed-off families. In contemporary societies, each household is a nuthouse with its own rules, largely disconnected from the others. The libertarian space outside only tolerates and lets grow the strangest mutations inside. Ripstein avoids a basic tragedy of imprisonment and sadism (though those are both present) and goes somewhere stranger, more engrossing. One person’s neuroses, their unique rules for their world are translated into everyone else’s.

In a cardigan with patches at the elbows, the gangly Gabriel doesn’t appear like a petty ruler, much less a crazed id monster. However his gaze is steady, his words assured and imperious, like a true demagogue, as he commands his family. To continue the political parallel, he’s a rather open hypocrite. The discipline he imposes on them doesn’t extend to himself – his obsession with purity, for instance. On his sales forays into the outside world, he makes furtive attempts at soliciting sex from young women, while his family is under lock and key. The spells of ominous domineering and primordial violence that men have – that shock even themselves – can rule a family, community, or – given enough influence – a nation. So, extended, the film can be read as a comment on the arbitrariness and paternalism of totalitarianism. It’s a system just asking for the inner failings and insecurities of one person to be projected, transformatively, across a whole culture.

Still from 'The Castle of Purity'Because even on the nuclear-family level, patriarchs, to varying degrees, act like presidents. And vice versa. After catching the two eldest in a sexual embrace inside the disused car that sits in the foyer, Gabriel punishes both of them. Ultimately, the harsher penalty goes to Utopia. “Women are to blame for everything!” he shouts at them. Exhausted after flying off the handle, he lays down, spent from his perceived failure to maintain order and values.

We can’t just revile what we see as only brutality or exploitation. There are so many situations in which the complications are more important, Stockholm and Lima (the syndrome, not the character) in the same building. Condemnation isn’t the film’s sole note. Rather, it challenges us to think about what rankles us about it and its characters. Yes, obviously, this utopia gone to seed is an abomination. But how is it so different from the apparatuses that brainwash us, so to speak, from birth? And how strange are the family’s non sequiturs compared to the protective fictions that we maintain in order to relate to society?

The Castle of Purity has the makings of a Buñuel film – people are in a house that they can’t or won’t ever leave, their dialogue is baffling, and there are a few surreal flairs like the almost never-ending rain, or the holes in the bedroom walls that Gabriel uses to spy on his family as they sleep. Ultimately the tone and the ways it goes about achieving it are entirely its own. Like Buñuel, Ripstein explores an absurd situation, pushing it to its boundaries, as a means to attack normative society.

But it is a sad and cruel absurdity, believable because of the nearly unbelievable news items that pop up, periodically, of brainwashing and imprisonment. These readily-sensationalized stories haunt us because they rattle, from right in the midst of our apparently progressive societies, notions of freedom and security that we feel should be inviolable. In response to the fascinating tragedies of real life that the film parallels, Ripstein didn’t mimic them, but created a self-contained world within one dilapidated house, governed by its own peculiar laws. In the same way the film differs from The Exterminating Angel (1962), where absurdity is explored from within an ostensibly boring normality.

These aren’t Buñuel’s benign caricatures, for whom we generally don’t feel anything. Gabriel feels truly unacceptable, by turns pathetic and raving, his wonky vision indefensible. We cringe to imagine what he will do to his family next, and wonder at his and Beatriz’ rationale, which they seem to make up as they go along. But we start to feel bad for them as well, even though they’re guilty of ruining their children for life. Like with the news items, we’re drawn into the seediness of it, and the strange language that it uses starts to become almost comprehensible. A scary thought.

Still from 'The Castle of Purity'The Greek film Dogtooth (2009), which was nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar, has been criticized for lifting its premise from The Castle of Purity. While that’s certainly possible, that film, it should be noted, goes on to do quite unique things from there. First of all, doesn’t look much like this one. Its cutesy commercialism seems more a stage for surrealist vignettes. While the director Yorgos Lanthimos goes for modish eccentricity, Ripstein takes us to the basement, so to speak, of human behavior.

Still, it’s hard to imagine Lanthimos not being inspired by the image of Gabriel tapping his stick rhythmically as the kids jog, in formation, around a room filled with anachronistic gymnasium objects. Dogtooth shares a fetishizing of the children’s shed body parts (the tooth of the title, collected hair in The Castle of Purity). What it redirects or avoids entirely are the mildewy aesthetics, the artless sexual frustration, the unvarnished cruelty and atavism that make The Castle of Purity indelible, that make it remain, less like a nightmare and more like some profoundly soiled feeling that you can’t shake off.

The setting is not gothic, and the characters’ tirades and meltdowns aren’t melodrama. Both the people and the place reflect all the squalid, haphazard, and regressive qualities of extreme isolation, and in fact are sort of founded on those things. The language they speak is eccentrically insipid, their sense of the world irreparably askew. So many of the shots are taken from the middle of the courtyard, amid the pouring rain, with action taking place on the surrounding sides. This gives the view a panoptic quality, like the circular insane asylum in Antonio Reis’ documentary Jaime (1976). The production design here is a feat of both lived-in shabbiness and preciousness, combining flourishes of 1920s decorative arts (stained glass in the bedroom) and the oppressive assemblage of a hoarder’s home.

If the criticism of Dogtooth as derivative did anything positive, it was bringing this much better film out of near-total obscurity, and back into discussion (it still hasn’t seen a re-release, however). The Castle of Purity has mainly been seen in retrospectives of the director’s work, but deserves to be celebrated as much as anything by Buñuel. Ripstein shows us a world apart from the hiccups of humanity – pure in a sense – but also one that excludes reason, agency, love. Utopianism aside, we must take care not to forget the importance of those things in ours.

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