Once Upon a Time in Chile: Haberle Crafts Colonialist Past as a Vicious Western
A quote from Sir Thomas More’s Utopia opens Felipe Gálvez’s sinister debut The Settlers (Los Colonos), referring to wolves turning on the sheep. Thus begins a complex layering of ironies, beginning with the title, referring to the violent realities of colonialism, itself an act of un-settling. Likewise the nod to More, a chancellor to Henry the VIII before he fell out of favor and was beheaded, a proponent of humanist thought who was the first to use the terminology ‘utopia.’ Gálvez’s reckoning with Chile at the turn of the 20th century presents itself as more of a Neo-western rather than a revisionist one, focusing on a trio of henchmen who are equally a danger to each other as the landscape they’re tasked with conquering. Like Sergio Leone’s epic spaghetti westerns serving as the constellation guiding us through the fabled mythos of the American Old West, Gálvez focuses on the flimsy bureaucracies and unchecked violence which crafted the foundations for future generations in an odyssey as troubling as it is brutal.
Opening in 1901, Tierra del Fuego, a melange of Machiavellian misfits have descended upon the land. The Spanish Don Jose Menendez (Alfredo Castro) desires to purge the land of the native populace with the excuse of carving out a safe passageway for his sheep along the coastline. He commandeers the barbaric Lt. Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley) to pillage the area any way he sees fit, selecting a sidekick by choosing the best marksman from Mendendez’s indentured servants. Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) fits the bill, who is half white and half Chilean, a distinction which makes his allegiances seem dubious. There’s some suspicion about MacLennan’s motives as well, considering he is Scottish and notably served in the British Army, still insistently wearing his uniform to reflect his tours of duty. Mendendez also assigns Bill (Benjamin Westfall) to the team, an errant American mercenary who knows the lay of the land.
The three of them meander through the countryside, endlessly bickering until they stray into Argentina and then run into Col. Martin (Sam Spruell), who rivals the heinousness of Menendez. The encounter will result in tragic circumstances for the trio. Seven years pass, and an emissary from Santiago, Vicuna (Marcelo Alonso), visits Mendendez’s isolated kingdom, attempting to gather information about the infamous rampage MacLennan embarked on, suggesting times are changing with an establishment now wishing to make peace with the indigenous peoples. However, reconciliation is not part of Mendendez’s vision for the future.
Gálvez essentially hollows out expected western tropes to explore the despair and terror created by colonialism, aspects which are only made possible when the perspective of the narrative averts the path of the white savior to instead focus on those caught in-between. For a majority of the film, this focus is Segundo, a name which literally means ‘second,’ another irony due to his diametrically opposed ancestry (it’s also the reclamation of a name, considering white actor Barton Heyman played a character named El Segundo to Burt Lancaster’s Mexican-American antihero in 1971’s Valdez Is Coming). Gálvez literally treads into a heart of darkness by the time Sam Spruell shows up, where rape, murder and dismemberment collide drastically before the time lapse to the third act.
Alfredo Castro is always an excellent choice for channeling malevolence and wickedness, but he’s utilized sparingly. Both Arancibia and Stanley are quite striking, but there’s something innately off with Westfall’s dialogue as a soulless American soldier of fortune, a sore thumb who causes some distraction. Simone D’Arcangelo (The Tale of King Crab, 2021) manages to make otherwise abundant exteriors feel sickly and claustrophobic, paired with eerie snatches of the lullaby All The Pretty Little Horses. Gálvez has created a suffocating film about a murder journey serving as a footnote for decades of disastrous chicanery to come.
Reviewed on May 22nd at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival – Un Certain Regard. 97 Mins