Shot on location in a small town on the border between Brazil & Argentina, writer/director Agustina San Martín’s To Kill the Beast occupies a woozy, liminal space between coming-of-age narrative and dreamy reverie. In her video introduction to the film, San Martín calls it an “exorcism of sorts,” although it’s not until the film’s end that it becomes clear what exactly is being cast out. There’s a skeletal narrative here, involving a young woman named Emilia (Tamara Rocca) who is searching for her brother Mateo. Their mother has died, and Emilia wishes to reconnect with the brother whom she hasn’t seen in years. Traveling to Mateo’s last known address, Emilia begins boarding with her peculiar Aunt Ines (Ana Brun), who runs a dilapidated hostel, and calls on her sister, Helena (Sabrina Grinschpun), to help in her hunt for Mateo. All of this is relayed in peculiar, vague ways, as San Martín and cinematographer Constanza Sandoval emphasize foggy, mist-shrouded landscapes and cryptic, off-kilter establishing shots. Eventually, Emilia meets another guest at Ines’ hostel, Julieth (Julieth Micolta), and the two begin a cautious flirtation of sorts. Complicating matters is a wild bull wandering the forest, which the locals are convinced is possessed by the spirit of an evil man and which must be put down. More a symbolic presence than an actual threat, this bull wanders the periphery of the film like a free-floating metaphor, representing whatever ills the townsfolk wish to project onto it.
Mateo, too, is a structuring absence rather than a character — he is neither seen nor heard throughout the film. Indeed, To Kill the Beast floats between these kinds of evocative, poeticized motifs and the very physical nature of Emilia and Julieth’s burgeoning relationship. The pair go to dances and drink with other young people in rapturous scenes of kinetic movement and somatic sensuality — call it the duality between the corporeal and the ethereal. At some point, a local mentions to Emilia that the place in which they live is “porous”; he’s speaking literally of the border between the neighboring countries, but of course San Martín also intends it in a more abstract sense, as this permeable boundary also comes to mean fluidity of sexuality and nationality. The film ends with a bit of a thud; it’s revealed that Mateo was in fact sent away to this town and ostracized from his family for an unspecified violent episode, which San Martín conflates with the bull — both become symbols for patriarchal power. Emilia’s eventual confrontation with the bull doesn’t carry the charge that San Martín seems to think it does, but the palpable chemistry between Emilia and Julieth is really the heart of the film anyway. As a portrait of a small enclave of women banding together to reclaim their space and their pleasure from men, To Kill the Beast is a lovely piece of work.
Published as part of TIFF 2021 — Dispatch 4.