The Settlers is an angry, violent Western-type version of the brutal colonial birth of Chile by first-time filmmaker Felipe Gálvez.
How the South was wonby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
Warning: The Settlers opens in 1901 with an act of violent, casual cruelty.
In South America, new countries were still being mapped in the blood of the indigenous peoples. In Britain, we think we know about the former British empire. This film is about the atrocities of Spanish colonialism in South America: this may not be as well-known.
Shot like a frontier Western, The Settlers depicts shameful historical events and notorious real people, such as brutal overseer and former soldier, Scottish Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley) and merciless, wealthy land-and-sheep owner José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro).
MacLennan is charged by Menéndez to cut a path from Chile, through the Indians (Ona, or Selk’nam) on the pampas to the Atlantic, so that he can ship sheep from his estate, so huge that it runs into Argentina, to Europe. The extinction of indigenous tribes who get in the way is understood to be part of the deal.
MacLennan selects the servant to take based on his shooting prowess. So we see events through the eyes of silent, half-Indian Segundo (Camilo Arancibia). He is forced to be complicit in the massacres en route, fearing he will suffer the same fate if he is not.
Menéndez insists they take Texan cowboy mercenary Bill (Benjamin Westfall) with them for his similar skill in tracking Indians in the fledgeling US. So the ill-assorted threesome set off on horseback on a killing spree across the vast expanse of the pampas. The cinematography by Simone D’Arcangelo makes them look small against the monumental landscapes. The music soundtrack by Harry Allouche is percussive and ominous. Among the renegades they meet is a dangerously crazed former British Army colonel (scene-stealing, menacing Sam Spruell).
The Settlers is divided into titled sections that signpost the passage of time. The sections focus on particular characters or events, or the later PR whitewash of the birth of the two nations (Mishell Guaña made to wear European dress as Kiepja below).
The film may seem uneven but what happens in mainly true and checkable. It’s gripping and shocking, especially if it’s new to you. First-time director Felipe Gálvez is very angry. After seeing his film you may be too.
The Settlers won the critics’ FIPRESCI Prize in Cannes Un Certain Regard 2023 and is Chile’s submission for the 2024 Oscars. It is released on 9 February 2024 in the UK.