The story takes place in 1901, a time when the Southernmost regions of Chile had barely been colonised. The indigenous people still flourished, but that was about to change soon. Ruthless, real-life landowner Jose Menendez (Alfredo Castro) hires three mercenaries in order to vouch for the integrity of his lands: Scotsman MacLennan (Mark Stanley), mixed-race Segundo (Camilo Aranbicia) and American Billy (Benjamin Westfall). They barely trust each other, however they forge ahead with their murderous task, intended to “protect”Jose Menendez’s property from the “uncivilised Indians”.
A literal genocide ensues. The self-righteous Brit, the American blabbermouth and the hesitant “half-blood” (a racist accolade for a mestizo) decimate hordes of indigenous people with their guns, and occasionally with their bare hands. Segundo is the least enthusiastic one, perhaps because of his mixed heritage (his victims are people of his very own race), or maybe because of his youth (he looks around 20 years of age, large black eyes bursting with fear and regret). He barely talks, instead following orders to the letter. He allows his desire to survive to prevail above his humanity. In other words: while he clearly feels for the massacred, he also knows that he’ll become another body in the pile should he fail to carry out his work duly.
The two foreigners derive sadistic pleasure from the murderous activities, in the vein of colonisers who destroyed the original populations of the Americas. MacLennan still wears his battered Queen’s Army coat as a symbol of his staunch allegiance to the British Empire. They too perceive the indigenous populations (particularly those of the Selk’nam tribe, whose culture is now considered extinct) as inferior, unreliable and even dangerous, perceived qualities that merit their extermination. This is Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil applied to South American soil. At one point, the two men force Segundo to rape a dying woman, in yet further evidence of their unhinged cruelty.
The vast, empty and misty subantarctic forest landscape, with very few trees at sight, is more reminiscent of Iceland than South America, giving the film an ethereal, dreamy feel. The high-contrast, gently saturated cinematography provides a touch of magical realism. These are the aesthetics of an art film crafted for reflection and contemplation. This is not an adrenaline-inducing thriller or historical drama. The violence is very graphic, however never fetishised. There’s an extensive shooting and carnage scene in the fog, with haunting images that strangely evoke Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood (1962) or Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979). Disturbingly elegant.
The director fast forwards a few years in the final third of the movie in order to reveal the fate of the characters. The latest part of the film takes part in Punta Arenas and Chiloe, revealing a country still struggling to make peace with its history. President Pedro Montt attempts to reconcile with the original peoples of the country, but that’s perhaps too little and too late, plus the elites have little interest in integration or even peaceful co-existence. In one of the films most chilling scenes, a female aristocrat boasts to a government officer that her family holds no regrets, and that the nation is indeed much better off without such “primitive” people.
The movie closes with red-tinged archive images of Chile in the early 20th century, and a soul-stirring song. A powerful allegory of the blood-soaked identity of the South American nation. The history of the Sek’nams is conveniently omitted from the nation’s school curriculum to this day. The Eurocentric history taught in the neighbouring nations (Argentina, Brazil, Peru, etc) is hardly different, with the massacre of indigenous people throughout the past 500 years largely relegated to the bin.
The Settlers was in CineVision Competition of the 40th Munich Film Festival, when this piece was originally written. The film premiered earlier this year in the Un Certain Regard session of the Festival de Cannes. It also shows at the San Sebastian Film Festival, and then at the BFI London Film Festival, and at the Turin Film Festival. In cinemas on Friday, February 9th.