Departing from the traditional ‘white saviour’ narrative often seen in historical dramas, The Settlers, released in UK Cinemas on 9 February 2023, boldly confronts a brutal period in Chilean colonial history. Directed by Felipe Gálvez, this narrative feature debut is an ambitious work that explores the dark aspects of human nature and history.
The film’s setting in late 19th century Chile, particularly in the rugged Patagonia region, serves as a backdrop for a story of exploitation and violence. The narrative revolves around an expedition led by the landowner José Menéndez, portrayed by Alfredo Castro.
Menéndez, known for his vast agricultural enterprises in Chile and Argentina, demands a path for his livestock, free from natural barriers and indigenous populations. Castro, with a history of intense and powerful performances, brings a chilling authenticity to this role, embodying the ruthless spirit of colonialism.
Joining Menéndez’s mission are MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a Texan cowboy (Benjamin Westfall), and, crucially, Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), a Chilean of mixed heritage. Stanley’s nuanced portrayal of MacLennan adds depth to the narrative, exploring the moral conflicts inherent in colonial endeavours.
Arancibia’s Segundo, torn between different worlds, captures the internal struggle of a man caught in the crossfire of history. His character’s journey is a microcosm of the larger historical and cultural conflicts at play.
The journey takes the group through some of the most inhospitable parts of the world, encountering territory markers and native tribes. Their conflicts range from petty tests of manhood to outright massacres, all seen through the haunted eyes of Segundo.
The film’s disquieting portrayal of violence, including dismemberment, sexual assault, and murder, is integral to its narrative, showing the worst aspects of human actions when unrestrained by law or moral guidance.
Gálvez’s direction is bold and sensitive, weaving a visually stunning and emotionally impactful narrative. The disquieting portrayal of violence, including dismemberment, sexual assault, and murder, is integral to its narrative. It doesn’t stop showing the worst aspects of human actions when unrestrained by law or moral guidance. The Settlers is described as a punishing acknowledgement of the past, a brutal, chilling indictment of capitalist colonialism.
Visually, the film is striking, with breathtaking wide shots of the Tierra del Fuego, craggy seasides, and foggy forests. This stark beauty of the landscape contrasts with the brutality of the events portrayed, offering a poetic meditation on the theme.
In its final act, The Settlers undergoes a dramatic shift, moving away from the immediate brutality of the colonial expedition to explore its broader political implications. This shift is marked by the arrival of Vicuña, a government official played by Marcelo Alonso. Alonso’s portrayal of Vicuña is critical to the film’s thematic expansion, introducing a layer of political intrigue and moral complexity that deepens the narrative.
Vicuña’s character is instrumental in drawing attention to the broader consequences of the colonial process. His interactions with Menéndez and Segundo spotlight the power dynamics and moral dilemmas inherent in colonialism. This character does not merely serve as a foil to Menéndez’s ruthless ambition; instead, he represents the governmental and societal complicity in the atrocities of colonialism. His arrival signifies an attempt by the establishment to reckon with the past, albeit in a manner that is fraught with its own moral ambiguities.
Alonso’s performance brings a subtle nuance to Vicuña, portraying a man who, on the surface, seems to be seeking justice and acknowledgement of the colonial wrongdoings. However, as the narrative unfolds, it becomes apparent that his motives might not be as clear-cut as they initially seem. His character embodies the complexities of political manoeuvring and the often uncomfortable relationship between power and justice.
The dialogues and interactions between Vicuña, Menéndez, and Segundo are particularly poignant as they shed light on colonialism’s different perspectives and rationalisations. Menéndez’s staunch defence of his actions and Vicuña’s bureaucratic approach to addressing the past create a tension that encapsulates the film’s critique of the era’s political and moral landscape.
Moreover, the film uses Vicuña’s character to explore the theme of national identity construction. His efforts to create a narrative that unifies the nation under a sanitised version of history are met with resistance and scepticism, particularly from Segundo. This resistance symbolises a rejection of a simplistic and monolithic view of history, advocating for a more nuanced and truthful reckoning with the past.
The final act of “The Settlers,” therefore, not only adds depth to the story but also elevates it to a broader discussion about the legacy of colonialism. It challenges the audience to consider how history is recorded, remembered, and used to shape national identities. The film, through Vicuña’s character, interrogates the narratives that nations construct and the truths they choose to acknowledge or ignore.
The Settlers is a film that explores the despair and terror created by colonialism and critiques the Western film genre. It moves away from the typical ‘white saviour’ narrative to focus on those caught in between, offering a fresh and necessary perspective on a historical period often romanticised in cinema.
It is a bold statement by Gálvez, marking a significant debut in feature filmmaking. The performances of Castro, Stanley, Arancibia, and Alonso bring the narrative to life, making “The Settlers” a film that is not only historically significant but also a profound exploration of human nature and moral ambiguity.