Moving away from the conventional ‘white saviour’ narrative typical in historical dramas, The Settlers makes its UK debut on February 9, 2023, offering a stark and unapologetic glimpse into a tumultuous chapter of Chilean colonial history. Under the direction of Felipe Gálvez, this film stands out as a daring and profound first feature, delving deep into the more sombre aspects of human nature and historical events.
The setting, in Chile’s late 19th century, particularly within the untamed expanse of Patagonia, forms a fitting backdrop for a narrative steeped in exploitation and violence. Central to the plot is the expedition led by José Menéndez, a role brought to life with gripping intensity by Alfredo Castro. Known for his expansive agricultural holdings across Chile and Argentina, Menéndez is a character who embodies the unyielding and often ruthless essence of colonial ambition.
In this narrative journey, Menéndez is joined by figures such as MacLennan (interpreted by Mark Stanley), a Texan cowboy (portrayed by Benjamin Westfall), and notably, Segundo (played by Camilo Arancibia), who is of mixed Chilean heritage. Stanley’s portrayal of MacLennan is layered, revealing the intricate moral conflicts present in colonial ventures.
Arancibia’s Segundo poignantly encapsulates the internal turmoil of someone torn between diverse cultural identities, serving as a microcosm for the larger historical and cultural turmoil of the time.
Their trek across some of the most forbidding terrains on the planet brings them face to face with both settlers marking their territories and indigenous tribes. The film unflinchingly portrays the severe violence of the era, including scenes depicting dismemberment, sexual assault, and murder, underscoring the extremities of human actions in the absence of legal and moral restraint.
Director Gálvez’s vision for “The Settlers” is bold and empathetic. He weaves a narrative that is visually arresting and emotionally resonant. The cinematography beautifully captures the majestic landscapes of Tierra del Fuego, using expansive shots that starkly contrast the brutal events of the story, adding a layer of poetic reflection on the film’s central themes.
The story undergoes a significant shift in its final act, focusing on the broader political implications of the colonial expedition. This is marked by the introduction of Vicuña, a government official played by Marcelo Alonso, whose portrayal injects a new level of political intrigue and moral complexity into the film.
Vicuña’s character is pivotal in highlighting the broader consequences of colonialism, as his interactions with Menéndez and Segundo illuminate the power dynamics and ethical dilemmas intrinsic to the colonial process.
Alonso’s nuanced performance portrays Vicuña as a complex figure, seemingly pursuing justice for colonial wrongdoings while entangled in political manoeuvring and the uncomfortable balance between power and justice. The dialogues and interactions among these characters, especially in the film’s latter half, reveal various perspectives within the colonial framework, reflecting the film’s critique of the era’s political and moral landscape.
Moreover, the film utilises Vicuña’s character to explore constructing national identity and crafting history. His efforts to unify the nation under a sanitised historical narrative are met with resistance and scepticism, especially from Segundo. This resistance signifies a rejection of simplified historical views, advocating for a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of the past.
The Settlers extends beyond a mere historical recount, elevating the conversation to the lasting impact of colonialism. It invites viewers to reflect on how history is recorded, remembered, and utilised to shape national identities. Through Vicuña’s character, the film scrutinises the narratives that nations build and the truths they choose to acknowledge or overlook.
“The Settlers” emerges as a significant historical film and a profound exploration of human nature and moral ambiguity. The performances by Castro, Stanley, Arancibia, and Alonso bring depth and life to the narrative, establishing the film as an essential work in contemporary cinema. It challenges the romanticised perspectives of colonial history and offers a fresh, critical lens on a period often glossed over in cinema.