Venice 2019 review: Blanco en blanco (Théo Court)

At the turn of the twentieth century Tierra del Fuego was established by Argentina as a territory, selling large tracts of land to rich ranchers while at the same time being responsible for the slaughter of the indigenous people that had lived in these lands for thousands of years. Violent and unforgiving, there is a certain beauty in the harshness of the land. But beauty can become a corrupting obsession, and complicity in violence lies just around the corner, as Théo Court shows in his second feature Blanco en blanco.

Photographer Pedro (a strong performance by Chilean actor Alfredo Castro) arrives in this inhospitable land at the behest of Mr. Porter, a mysterious and powerful landowner who we never get to see. Pedro’s task is to photograph Porter’s wedding. Pedro becomes obsessed with the bride-to-be, Sara, still a child in her early teens. His obsession becomes his downfall, as he tries to capture her beauty in too frank and, to be honest, too sexual a way, thereby betraying the forces of power that rule the lands. His actions are discovered, and Pedro is forced to be complicit in genocide as a new society is built through the eradication of the Selknam people, Pedro’s camera documenting the atrocities in such a way that it distorts them into heroics.

Blanco en blanco at times is as impenetrable as the country it is set in, and in large part that comes down to how its protagonist is defined. It is hard to get a read on Pedro, and he certainly isn’t a typical protagonist. He feels somewhat akin to Zama, the central character of Lucrecia Martel’s same-titled film, but he is definitely more sinister. His obsession with and behavior around the young girl is uncomfortable to watch, and when he wants to photograph her in a less formal setting it is downright creepy. Castro plays Pedro soft-voiced, his hushed tones towards the girl soothing, and you can’t help but feel that you are watching a predator slowly reeling in his prey.

This makes what follows after Pedro is caught and essentially forced into working for Mr. Porter cold and distant. Fittingly, considering the surroundings, but it makes Pedro’s descent into madness less affecting than perhaps it should, if that is indeed Court’s intention. Blanco en blanco is pretty clearly a condemnation of the settlers’ bloody eradication of a people, but if seen through the eyes of someone a little more sympathetic it could have heightened the impact and made Pedro’s journey a more tragic one.

Conversely, forgoing the traditional antagonist route by leaving the all-powerful Porter off-screen for the entire running time, to the point where there is doubt he even exists, enhances Pedro’s story to a Kafkaesque horror. Unable to escape this harsh land, he is drawn deeper and deeper into the madness. The other characters he has contact with, housekeeper Aurora (Lola Rubio) and an unnamed foreman (Lars Rudolph) are slowly revealed to have landed in a similar situation as Pedro, displaying continuously more erratic and desperate behavior. Pedro’s own mad trajectory is punctuated by a drawn-out final shot in which he tries to photograph a group of Porter’s men as heroic conquerors after they have just murdered a number of indigenous Selknam people.

Court restrains his actors and his cinema though, keeping Blanco en blanco a sober (and sobering) affair. It certainly tests the viewer’s patience with its languorous yet beautiful shots of the emptiness of Tierra del Fuego and drawn-out scenes imbued with the inertia and desperation of the characters. As if caught in a spider’s web, Pedro can’t escape this windswept end-of-the-world scenario, which drives him to the point that he becomes a part of the genocidal machinery at work in this remote place. And all because of an unhealthy obsession.