‘The Settlers’ movie review: A quietly haunting tale on the Selk’nam genocide

A scene from the evocative film ‘The Settlers’

In the world of Chilean cinema, the film The Settlers emerges as a profoundly understated narrative. Its minimalistic dialogue aptly complements the expansive desolation of the Andean landscapes it portrays. Tackling the harrowing topic of the Selk’nam people’s annihilation, the film’s silence is poignant. Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s first venture in directing shines, displaying a profound understanding of how restraint in storytelling can amplify impact.

Unfolding in the austere backdrop of Tierra del Fuego, Chile, during the year 1901, The Settlers recounts the grim eradication of the Selk’nam, an indigenous community. The land-hungry entrepreneur José Menéndez, portrayed by Alfredo Castro, enlists a group to embark on a journey through the Andes with one cruel objective: to evict the native inhabitants. His hired forces include Alexander MacLennan, a former British Army officer played by Mark Stanley, and an American marksman, Bill, portrayed by Benjamin Westfall. Joining the venture is Segundo, enacted by Camilo Arancibia, a mestizo (person of mixed heritage) chosen for his sharpshooting expertise.

The Settlers (Spanish, English)

Director: Felipe Gálvez Haberle

Cast: Camilo Arancibia, Mark Stanley, Benjamin Westfall, Alfredo Castro, Marcelo Alonso, Sam Spruell, and others

Run-time: 97 minutes

Storyline: A historical drama set at the turn of the 20th century recounting an expedition into the Andes, implicated in the extermination of the indigenous Selk’nam population

The film’s 97 minutes are effectively divided. The screenplay, crafted by Haberle alongside Antonia Girardi and Mariano Llinás, narrates the chilling progression of the genocide as the group treks across the territory. The screenplay gradually reveals the preexisting prejudices, focusing on ethnic tensions that escalate, particularly between Segundo and his Caucasian companions, who doubt his loyalty. Shifting between languages highlights their disdain as Bill and MacLennan insult Segundo in English, understanding that he might grasp their words. Despite being mere subordinates in unfamiliar lands, they unapologetically embody the colonial attitudes of the Chilean settlers.

Encountering their first small assembly of indigenous individuals, Bill and MacLennan participate in the atrocity with zeal, while Segundo is visibly disturbed. They confront him later, questioning the number of people he has killed, to which he ambiguously responds, evading the query. Dissatisfied with his response, MacLennan warns Segundo that he must succumb to violence or face it himself.

Camilo Arancibia delivers an exceptional performance, conveying profundity through nuance and a subdued presence. While Benjamin and Mark fulfill their roles satisfactorily, their portrayals could have benefited from further development.

The storyline reaches beyond, providing insights into a subsequent timeline. Seven years ahead, within the luxurious estate of Menéndez, a new plot unfolds—strategies are schemed to conceal the sinister truths of his conquests, to sanitize the birth of the Chilean nation from the taint of the bloodshed. Segundo finds himself uprooted from his life, once again implicated in these dark dealings.

Although The Settlers may necessitate refinements in character portrayal, it remains an eloquent testament to storytelling. Haberle’s nuanced exposition of the white Chileans’ position, perpetrating genocide for profit, marks his future works with anticipation and promise.

The Settlers is currently available for streaming on MUBI.

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