We all accomplished something, or at least tried to, in our isolated quarantines in 2020. I was a junior in high school at the time, and to have any time off school was enough for me. It’s endlessly fascinating, though, to see what others were able to create during a time of being physically severed from the outside world.
One of these pieces of art is Menina Casilda, a Spanish drama written and directed by Eric Du Bellay, making his feature debut. Set during the early lockdown in Madrid, our lead is Diego (Alvaro De Paz), who establishes himself as an unlikable protagonist in the film’s opening when he kidnaps a young law student, Sara (Paula Varela) and keeps her locked in his condo.
I must admit, I dreaded what this film set itself up as: an abusive, mentally unstable actor keeps a woman as his captive audience. Like many Beauty and the Beast-type stories before it, its story course is easy to chart, without much room left for surprises. I wasn’t entirely correct, though — while a far cry from a completely new story, Menina Casilda is aware of its influences, and attempts to subvert expectations as much as possible. When you’re dealing with this kind of story, there’s only a certain number of ways it can go, and I found myself slightly let down by the outcome.
Menina Casilda‘s twist is that Diego is a lover of film. He dresses up in full period regalia to watch Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon (one of his favorites); he’s memorized monologues from Kramer vs. Kramer; he even has an autograph from Steven Spielberg. Since he has nothing better to do, most of his time is spent recreating scenes from movies, something he eventually asks Sara’s help in doing.
I found Diego’s character to be interesting. Usually, in self-referential films, the movie lover is a side character, and one that the audience typically roots for. Menina Casilda turns that on its head and makes him both a protagonist and the antagonist, a confusion that works to the film’s benefit. Though never explicitly stated, I believe this is the very purpose of Diego’s obsession: the initial kidnapping and imprisonment is his way of making a movie for himself to keep himself occupied during the lockdown with a scene partner, for whom the situation is entirely real.
Sara, meanwhile, is constantly looking for ways to escape. She tries everything with Diego — from assault to sexual propositions — but he’s a skilled manipulator. If he wants her to stay there, she will stay. Varela and De Paz are doing great work, and sell the relationship perfectly. I just wish I could get on board with the direction it eventually goes in.
It’s not just the performers who are bringing their A-game; a low budget and a single location aren’t enough to stop this cast and crew. Their commitment partly pays off — Menina Casilda is creative with its execution, but I could never get on board with embracing Diego as much as the film wanted me to. It’s hard to look past his wrongdoings to focus and laugh at his awkwardness and quirks, and the kidnapping always looms over what should be cute moments. When it comes to COVID-era entertainment, you could do better, but you could also far worse.