Biarritz Latin American Film Festival 2023 review: The Settlers (Felipe Gálvez)

The Settlers is a film that concocts a strong mixture of mood, craft, and thematic heft, and garners interest for what this director might do next.”

Although Chile has been independent for almost two centuries, colonization’s ills still reverberate. Only recently has cinema shone its lights on Patagonia, that windswept and desolate region that makes up a large part of South America’s two southernmost countries, resulting in such films as Lisandro Alonso’s Jauja or Alessio Rigo de Righi and Matteo Zoppis’ The Tale of King Crab. And once you shine a light on something, you also discover the darkness of shadows, which in the case of Patagonia means a hard look at the gruesome treatment of its indigenous people. In his debut feature The Settlers Felipe Gálvez picks up the gauntlet that was left by Théo Court with his 2019 title Blanco en blanco. Like Court’s film, The Settlers looks at the genocide committed on the Selk’nam people by post-colonialist landowners who showed themselves just as brutal, if not more, than their colonialist predecessors. Though somewhat episodic in nature, the film’s unsettling (pun not intended) look and sound deliver a gut punch once the long coda is reached, which reveals that even the truth can’t remove the shadows of the past.

The near-uninhabitable region of Tierra del Fuego, the most southern tip of land in the Americas, is sparsely populated, with a relentless climate and an ever-blowing wind. Its lands are fertile grounds for sheep though, something already understood by landowner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro, excellent as usual). He owns large tracts of land stretching from Chile to Argentina, grazing grounds for his flocks. To ensure a safe trade route to the Atlantic Coast he sends out MacLennan (Mark Stanley, best known for playing Grenn on hit series Game of Thrones), a gruff former lieutenant in the British army, to free the land from any indigenous people, who Menéndez sees as a threat to his herds (and occupying more land he could snatch up, no doubt). MacLennan picks the mixed-race expert marksman Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) to join him on the journey, but Menéndez adds American mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall) to the party, seeing as he can “sniff out an Indian from kilometres away.” Most of the journey is lonesome, and any comradery you might expect from this sort of film is absent. MacLennan and Bill irritate each other, and both irritate the silent Segundo. Whenever they run into people in the vast emptiness they traverse it inevitably ends in violence, no matter if it is a surveying crew mapping out the border between Chile and Argentina or a small and unarmed community of Selk’nam. The slaughter of the latter, a foggy and particularly tense scene, is a harrowing reminder of what these men were actually sent out to do, and also provides a point-of-no-return moment for Segundo.

When we cut to the film’s final third through an eerie rendition of All the Pretty Little Horses, as if we are being lulled to sleep over what has transpired before, we find ourselves seven years beyond the three-man mission. Menéndez is visited in his mansion by a state official (Marcelo Alonso) investigating the crimes of Menéndez’s employees. When this official, Vicuña, asks to speak to the mission’s only survivor Segundo, Menéndez cannot do anything but agree. Segundo gives a full account of the committed atrocities. If you expect this to be a reckoning, then know that Menéndez, a real-life figure, was (and to some extent still is) revered in Chile, at least until an investigation in the early 2000s unearthed his role in the extermination of the Selk’nam people.

Gálvez cuts up the main body of the story into chapters with ominous titles. This turns The Settlers into an odyssey story with weak thematic cohesion between the miniature adventures of the trio. A late encounter with another outcast of the British army, Colonel Martin (a gleefully malevolent Sam Spruell), serves no other purpose than to underline the lawlessness of the land in blood red. What holds the whole thing together during the long slog of MacLennan and company is the exquisite tech work. Simone D’Arcangelo’s cinematography is alternately washed out and blown out, which emphasizes both the harshness and the beauty of the land. The film makes good use of the wide open landscapes anyway, but his Instagram-like filtering (and this is meant as a positive here) makes them somehow more sinister and otherworldly, as if this is a land where men should not tread. White men, in any case. Harry Allouche’s score further adds to the distressing feeling watching the film, with its string plucking and its wide range of percussive instruments creating an uncomfortable atmosphere. The tone shift that occurs once we get to Menéndez’s mansion in the final section is jarring, especially because of the fade-in of All the Pretty Little Horses; it is like waking from a nightmare. The realization that the true monsters of the nightmare are still running the show in waking life is all the more poignant for it.

The Settlers is far from a perfect film. The main English-speaking performances are uneven, with especially Westfall leaning in a bit too much in his jolly bounty-hunter role; the screenplay is heavily reliant on evil dread and nihilistic characters, only the scene of the massacre giving Segundo, arguably the film’s lead character, the possibility of developing an arc. Not until the film’s final third does the screenplay come thematically alive, showing that the true evil moves in salons, not in grasslands. What The Settlers does provide is an important look at history in a country and continent where the powers that be like to sweep it under the rug. Gálvez tackles an important topic for Chile, and since he is not the first filmmaker in recent history to do so, shows that maybe the country is ready for a reckoning. While the film is mostly carried by the atmospheric feel of a hard-boiled Western (climate aside, the setting is not so different from your average Sam Peckinpah or Sergio Leone) which pushes the message to the background, The Settlers is a very promising debut because Gálvez does manage to tie it up in a strong finale that hammers home the consequences of what came before. Even if this makes it unbalanced, The Settlers is still a film that concocts a strong mixture of mood, craft, and thematic heft, and garners interest for what this director might do next.