'The Settlers' review: First-time director Felipe Gálvez's provocative look at Chile's colonial past

‘The Settlers’ review: First-time director Felipe Gálvez’s provocative look at Chile’s colonial past

There has been a recent trend in international arthouse cinema that goes back roughly to two Argentine films from the last decade: Lucrecia Martel’s To exist (2017) and by Lisandro Alonso Oh (2014).

Both films told dark stories of European colonization and the massacres inflicted on indigenous peoples of South America, in ways that felt wholly contemporary, eschewing traditional narratives in favor of something more enigmatic and modern. In such films, the past was reflected through the lens of the present. The characters were all dressed in period costumes and the sets were made to look like they were from that time, but the stories being told and the way they were being told felt very much from our time, as if the horrors were still with us.

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The Colonists

The bottom line

A revisionist western that revisits historical crimes.

Place: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Launch: Camilo Arancibia, Mark Stanley, Benjamin Westfall
Director: Philip Galvez
Screenwriters: Felipe Galvez and Antonia Girardi

1 hour and 40 minutes

This trend has continued, albeit in a more playful sense, in Italian cinema The Story of the Crab King (2021), and more spiritually in the Icelandic set Godland (2022), both of which premiered at Cannes. This year, the festival offers another take on the genre with The Colonists (the settlers), Felipe Gálvez’s feature debut chronicling the genocide of the native peoples of Chile at the hands of Spanish landowners, who brutally massacred the tribes of Tierra del Fuego as they built their agricultural empire.

Gálvez, who co-wrote the film with Antonia Girardi, uses the model of a western to tell his story, although it is a western carried by a postcolonial critic that gradually takes on the point of view of its only indigenous character, Segundo (Camilo orange tree).

When we first meet him, Segundo is working with other natives on a fence the Spaniards are erecting to separate Chile’s pampas from neighboring Argentina. The work is cutthroat and overseen by cruel masters who have no qualms about killing the wounded, so when Segundo’s expert marksman skills lead him to recruits on a mission to clear rangelands as far away as the Pacific, it seems he’s getting the best deal.

The mission was commanded by José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), a powerful player in Chile’s emerging economy who is as ruthless as Daniel Plainview. Indeed, there will be blood on a treacherous journey that takes Segundo, a war-torn Scottish lieutenant (Mark Stanley) and an American mercenary, Bill (Benjamin Westfall), who has been imported from Texas, across mountains and ravines until they reach the sea.

For much of its opening and middle sections, The Colonists it works like a three-handed western in which the contrasting personalities of Bill and the lieutenant – who we discover is, in fact, a private – come to a head as Segundo silently watches. Divided into chapters with titles and supported by a score by Harry Allouche with some echoes of Ennio Morricone, the film can feel a little gimmicky when it leans too much into the trappings of the genre, wearing its postmodernism too blatantly on its sleeve.

But when we gradually learn that the trio has been tasked with ridding the land of the indigenous people, things take a decidedly darker turn and the real goal of The Colonists comes to light. The film’s most harrowing sequence sees Bill and the lieutenant slaughter a tribe of innocents, then rape a female survivor. Segundo tries to avoid participating, but is dragged into committing an act of violence from which he cannot escape, which leaves him traumatized and filled with regret. Even though he’s from another tribe, he’s been forced to turn against his own people.

Shot in Academy format by Simone D’Arcangelo, who did similar work The Story of the Crab King, the film feels like an artifact from an earlier time, slowly zooming in and panning over the monumental landscapes in which the journey takes place. Yet while his styles are deliberately retro, his goals are very much here and now. This is a film that digs deep into Chile’s colonial past, especially during a closing section that turns the story into a historic showdown.

But even then, Gálvez presents Segundo, whom others refer to as “the mestizo,” less as an unlikely hero than as a victim lucky and resourceful enough to survive a terrible moment in Chile’s troubled birth. The ColonistsIn the provocative epilogue, ambitious Chilean officials force the man to tell everything he’s seen during his mission, including another terrible massacre, and he does so only because he’s once again given little choice. This may be the story of his country, but he doesn’t want to be a part of it.