By Carol Borden
Director Agustina San Martín describes To Kill The Beast / Matar a la Bestia (Argentina / Brazil / Chile, 2021) as like an “exorcism” in her introduction to the film at TIFF. I have thoughts on what the film or its main character, Emilia (Tamara Rocca) might be exorcising, but those are thoughts probably best shared after a general release. 17-year-old Emilia has traveled from Buenos Aires to a town on the border of Argentina and Brazil in search of her brother, Mateo. She seems ambivalent about him, describing him as a violent man, at one point, but still she is angry at him for not calling her back and in the phone calls she leaves we see her desire to connect with him. We don’t know much about the cause of their estrangement or the reason for her desire to find Mateo. As in life, we are not presented with a backstory--just what we can piece together. Emilia stays at her Aunt Ines’ (Ana Brun) boarding house where there is no connectivity and even the phone cord has been cut. Aunt Ines’ boarding house is contemporary, but also very Gothic. It contains secrets and resentments. The film itself is contemporary, but also very Gothic. It opens on a misty blue moonlit landscape reminiscent of Gothic book covers. And there is at least one diaphanous robe and nightgown.
No one will help Emilia find her brother. Mostly people don’t even answer her questions. They stare. The townsfolk are pre-occupied by a beast that might be the spirit of a bad man that has come out of the forest. It does “the worst” things to women. The townsfolk seem most concerned about the stretch of forest behind Ines’ house and Ines drives them off with all the aplomb of Betty Davis or Lillian Gish with a shotgun. Emilia herself continues to search for her brother, but she’s distracted, too. Though maybe distracted is the wrong word. She has more in her life than Mateo and she’s interested in several of the other teen girls in town, especially Julieth (Julieth Micotta) who also comes to stay in the boarding house--conveniently in the room next to Emilia’s.
To Kill The Beast is an evocative film with beautifully shot cramped interiors and expansive exteriors. And in an era when so much film is plotted down to the minute, I appreciate its looseness and its trust in the audience to take a moment and let ambiguity sit with us.
(Just so you know: The dog does not die).