A missing child is the catalyst for unravelling motherhood in Matias Bize’s taut single-take drama

The Punishment

Source: Festival Films

‘The Punishment’

Dir: Matias Bize. Chile/Argentina. 2022. 86mins

A single-take missing child movie filmed on a Chilean backroad at the edge of a darkening forest, The Punishment elegantly turns a compelling and intense dramatic situation into an involving study of the psychology of motherhood. Matias Bize’s ninth feature continues his filmic investigations into the intimacies of human relationships,  this time infusing them with a new urgency and suspense. Bize’s sure-handedness makes it a lesson in tech craft - one that won him the directing prize at Malaga - while Coral Cruz’s script is grueling but rewarding ride: viewers are likely to take more away from the experience than they expected going in. 

Shot in a single take, using a single camera. It’s a high-risk strategy

Much of Bize’s work, such as 2015’s The Weight of Water, which also deals with the loss of a child, unspools in real time. Like 2003’s SaturdayThe Punishment was shot in a single take, using a single camera. It’s a high-risk strategy that surprisingly generates only a couple of longueurs and over-hasty moments here; the film was shot in full on seven consecutive days towards nightfall, with the version shot on the sixth day on display here.

Angered by the antics of their seven-year-old son Lucas (Santiago Urbina), his parents Ana (Antonia Zegers) and Mateo (Nestor Cantillana) have left him on a rural road and driven off in order to frighten him into behaving. Excessive or not, when they return after a couple of minutes, the boy has gone. For reasons that will later become clear, Ana seems shellshocked and oddly passive more than panicked, standing around while Mateo plunges into the woods, uselessly shouting out Lucas’ name.

Under the pressure of this situation, the cracks quickly start to show. Whose idea was it to leave Lucas there? How long has it been? Should they tell Ana’s mother, who they are driving to meet Why does Mateo always get to be the good cop, while Ana is always the bad cop? (Viewers who are parents may be familiar with this particular debate, and the film provides a good few such seat-squirming moments.) 

The real cops show up, in the form of the implacable, dogged Sergeant Salas (Catalina Saavedra), plodding of manner but lightning-fast of brain. Anna and Mateo rather pathetically give her a fake version of events to save face, worried about how the story might play out in the local news. Having cast her beady police procedural eye over over the car’s tyre marks, Salas obliges them to tell the truth and chastises them for having actually worsened Lucas’ situation by wasting time.

Night is coming on. The tensions that have been building up inside Ana, and hence inside the viewer, push her into a superbly delivered, cathartic monologue lasting about ten minutes, revealing her true feelings about being a mother – messy, complex feelings that are brilliantly articulated by scriptwriter Cruz and brilliantly rendered by Zegers, the awkward home truths tumbling from Ana’s lips in such a way as to strike all sorts of chords. (Both Zegers and Cantillana will be familiar to international audiences for their work with Pablo Larrain, Sebastian Lelio and Bize himself.) It’s a speech that could easily feel staged, but here it emerges seamlessly and naturally from the preceding hour: we’ve been carefully prepared.

Putting all this together in real time is a challenge, but the shots follow one another with such fluidity that we’re never aware of it. The tech wizardry, meanwhile, is not simply showoff, because it lends an intensity to ideas which are, are after all, hardly original. By the time we reach The Punishment’s striking final tableau, we are fully invested in Lucas’s mother, rather than the child himself, which is quite an achievement on the part of all involved – and which may, in fact, be part of the script’s point.

Production companies: Ceneca Producciones, Leyenda

International sales: Bendita Film Sales luis@benditafilms.com

Producer: Adrian Solar

Screenplay: Coral Cruz

Cinematography: Gabriel Diaz

Production design: Sebastian Olivari

Editing: Luis Barros

Music: Gustavo Pomenarec

Main cast: Antonia Zegers, Nestor Cantillana, Catalina Saavedra, Santiago Urbina(