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(The 61st New York Film Festival runs September 29-October 15. Check out M.J. O’Toole’s movie review of The Settlers. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Felipe Gálvez’s directorial debut The Settlers takes us on a journey to early 20th-century Chile when colonialism was a top enterprise, and indigenous lives were considered expendable in the eyes of landowners and white habitants who considered themselves a superior race. Co-written by Gálvez and Antonia Girardi, The Settlers takes the form of a John Ford western early on, only for it to unravel into an existential abyss of identity, culpability, and guilt. An unflinching look at the real-life massacre of the indigenous Selk’nam tribe that wealthy landowners orchestrated. Stretching over captivating landscapes and an Ennio Morricone-like score, Gálvez takes what we could find in the history books and provides an expertly chilling tale that addresses Chile’s brutal past. As it progresses, the past connects to the present.

The year is 1901 in the Tierra del Fuego region. Several workers are putting up fences in a wide barren land owned by José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), a real-life historical figure whose many businesses still remain to this day. He assigns a special kind of mission to ruthless, rugged Scottish military man MacLennan (Mark Stanley), which is to wipe out the indigenous tribes on his land in order to create safe routes for his cattle. Menéndez assigns the American cowboy Bill (Benjamin Westfall) to join him, who is notorious for his ability to “smell a Native from miles away.” The group is completed by the young land worker and mixed-race Chilean Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) whom MacLennan recruits for his marksmanship skills. The expedition begins, filled with unexpected encounters and devastating circumstances, as the men on their horses trot along from mountains to sea over Harry Allouche’s haunting score. 

Throughout the trio’s journey, MacLennan repeatedly tries to assert his dominance, even donning his red army uniform. Stanley expresses his character’s yearning for respect and superiority through rage, to uphold his standard of masculinity, which only highlights his insecurities. The story even jumps into some Western tropes when the British officer and American cowboy repeatedly butt heads all while their native cohort looks on. But much of this journey is shown through the eyes of Segundo, whom MacLennan and Bill treat more like a slave than a comrade. It is a perspective rarely shown that breaks the tropes of the usual Western. It can only be through his point of view that we truly grasp the atrocities committed and understand his complex position. Because of his race and how others view him, Segundo doesn’t have the privilege to speak his mind freely. Through his silence, Arancibia shines in an outstanding breakout performance.

When they locate the tribe, Segundo becomes pressured into committing these unimaginable acts. In a way, he is compelled to do so if he wants to stay alive, no matter how little he wants to be involved. At one point, he tries to offer somewhat of an act of kindness by taking a life to prevent further suffering in one of the film’s more harrowing moments. One way that co-writers Gálvez and Girardi do this story justice is by rightfully painting MacLennan and Bill as the remorseless killers they are. However, the mass murder of the tribes is never exploited with the use of graphic violence. Gálvez, in these moments, mainly keeps the camera on Segundo’s horrified expressions to express his guilt for being complicit in the slaughters. Later in the film, we meet captive Selk’nam woman Kiepja (Mishell Guaña) who sees into the soul of Segundo and sympathizes with his feelings of guilt amid his circumstances, even though the two don’t speak the same language. Gálvez keenly scrutinizes his country’s history and differences in background.

When the film flashes forward seven years, it explores how the Chilean government tries to make sanctimonious amends with the Indigenous population for these crimes. Only in the haunting final shot of the film does it cut through the illusion of kindness, and points out the detachment from the trauma these people have suffered. First-time director Felipe Gálvez pulls it off with this captivating work of defiance that head-on addresses Chile’s dark past with historical context. The cinematography, shot in Academy ratio by Simone D’Arcangelo (The Tale of King Crab), comes across as a Dutch painting that captivatingly captures the wide landscapes and characters’ psychological states. As others have pointed out, a similar topic is explored in Martin Scorcese’s soon-to-be-released Killers of the Flower Moon. Just like that film, The Settlers is a fierce work of art that will make the past harder to forget.

– M.J. O’Toole (@mj_otoole93)

2023 New York Film Festival; Felipe Gálvez; The Settlers

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