Based on true events that took place in Mexico during the decade of the 1950s, The Castle of Purity by Arturo Ripstein is an exemplary and upsetting film that reimagines a family’s imprisonment, which lasted approximately eighteen years. Written by Ripstein and José Emilio Pacheco, The Castle of Purity follows the lives of the family, with a special emphasis on the father, who is responsible for holding his family captive. Although the film’s story was inspired by a real-life occurrence, the film can also be analyzed as a metaphor of the dictablanda—soft dictatorship—that had been a part of Mexican politics since the beginning of the 20th century. In fact, the soft dictatorship was a result of the 70-year rule of the PRI, the Institutional Revolutionary Party. According to Modern Latin America, Mexico, in the wake of the Revolution, “developed a relatively ‘soft’ authoritarianism that bore little resemblance to the brutal military regimes that would dominate the Southern Cone from the 1960s to the 1980s” (Skidmore, Smith & Green 62). This unique soft authoritarianism that was part of Mexican society is actually alluded to in the film and can be analyzed by looking at the mise-en-scène, the character of the father, and the circularity of the narrative.
One of the ways in which the political regime of the PRI is represented in the film, is through the mise-en-scène. Specifically, the house is comprised by a central courtyard structure, in which all the rooms face the center. It can be said that the structure of the house resembles a panopticon, an architectural form for a prison designed to control subjects through vision rather than force. This, of course, is relevant to the film’s narrative, because the family is literally imprisoned. However, the house as prison can also be understood as a metaphor of the political regime. In the same way that the central courtyard gives the illusion of freedom, the soft authoritarianism made it difficult for people to realize that they were actually living in a dictatorship. In the film, the family can roam freely thanks to the courtyard, but they are never allowed outside the house. Just like the family was provided with a “fake” outside world, Mexican people were given a false sense of democracy.
In addition to the architectural features of the house, the character of Gabriel, the father, can be seen almost as a stand-in for the PRI. There have been many comparisons between famous authoritarian leaders and typical paternalistic figures. Porfirio Díaz, for example, would often be perceived as a strong father figure. As a result, the party or people in power during authoritarian regimes would usually go back and forth between providing for the people and curtailing freedoms. Gabriel embodies this idea, as he is kind, yet extremely violent at times. The PRI was no different; although there were some years of economic boom and stability, there were also episodes of extreme brutality—like the massacre at Tlatelolco. Gabriel represents the instability of authoritarian power; on one hand he seems loving and caring, and on the other, he is extremely volatile and oppressive when provoked.
The circular aspect of the film also makes reference to the political regime of the time. Although by the end of the film the family is essentially free, it is unclear whether they will be able to escape so many years of psychological and physical imprisonment. Not only that, but when the police come to arrest the father, the children and mother are distraught and do not want him to leave. Their inability to escape is further referenced to by the use of the same opening and closing shot, which implies that we are literally and figuratively “back at square one.” This is also true of the PRI’s rule. Although the individual people in power changed over the course of the 70-year dictablanda, the system remained intact because the political party was the same. Although The Castle of Purity is a film that was released in 1972, it was until the elections of 2000 that a new party was democratically elected (Skidmore, Smith & Green 75-76). Thus, the circularity of the film serves to make a point about a system or structure that reproduces itself without ever changing.
Based on a real-life incident, The Castle of Purity is a film that can be understood as a metaphor of the PRI’s soft dictatorship. The set that was utilized in the film is quite interesting because it makes reference to a panoptic prison, where the subjects are controlled through vision or surveillance. In the same vein, by having a central courtyard, the house is falsely conceived as a free space, but the characters are never allowed to leave. Similarly, the soft authoritarian regime provided citizens with a false sense of democracy, but the people’s voices were never actually heard or taken into consideration. Like many autocratic governments, Gabriel is the paternal figure who can be kind and provide for its children, while at the same time be violent and controlling. The circularity implied with the use of the same shot in the beginning and end of the film suggests that, although the person in power has left, it is unclear whether a real change will actually occur.
Skidmore, Thomas E., Peter H. Smith, and James N. Green. “Mexico,” Modern Latin America. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014. p. 62, 75, 76.