Actors Mark Stanley as MacLennan, Camilo Arancibia as Segundo, and Benjamin Westfall as Bill in a still from Felipe Galvez' Chilean Western "The Settlers."
ManOfTheCenturyMovie Film Review of ‘The Settlers’: A Chilean piece of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’.

Review of ‘The Settlers’: A Chilean piece of ‘Killers of the Flower Moon’.

Actors Mark Stanley as MacLennan, Camilo Arancibia as Segundo, and Benjamin Westfall as Bill in a still from Felipe Galvez' Chilean Western "The Settlers."

In Budd Boetticher’s 1959 parable about how we remember violence, “Laugh Lonesome,” Randolph Scott confronts the man who killed his wife right where he killed her.

“It was a long time ago,” the killer said. “I almost forgot about it.” Scott’s response? “A man can do it.”

So too can a company. Especially when it’s all too convenient to forget things so unpleasant that they could shake our very sense of identity. Felipe Galvez’s Chilean western “The Settlers” might remind some viewers of a Boetticher film when they watch it: following three men on horseback on a cross-country journey, it dramatizes questions of identity and belonging, and how these things can be written in violence. More like Boetticher, in just 98 minutes “The Settlers” says more than many films that double its length. It’s one of the most chilling art Westerns to emerge in quite some time, as provocative for its ideas, dialogue and characterizations as it is for the beauty of its empty landscapes.

It’s the end of the last century. A wealthy landowner who bought most of Tierra del Fuego, Jose Menendez (a real-life historical figure, whose descendants own much of the land today), recruits the Scottish military who manage his security to gather the men of he needs and embark on a mission to exterminate the Selk’nam indigenous people on his land. The Scotsman, MacLennan (Mark Stanley), wants only one to accompany him: a mestizo mestizo, himself of indigenous origin, Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), who is just out of his teens. Menendez (Alfredo Castro) doesn’t have it, however. The landowner insists that MacLennan also take Bill (Benjamin Westfall), a wily Texan with a thick drawl and a big reputation. “Look at it,” Menendez says, pointing to Segundo. “And look at Bill.” Menendez would never have allowed MacLennan to take just one part native boy to kill other natives.

They embarked on their journey through Tierra del Fuego, through landscapes that look more like Iceland than what one normally thinks of South America. MacLennan, a gruff curmudgeon still wearing his slightly tattered red vest from the Queen’s Army where he claims to be a lieutenant, is prone to bursting into song and bragging about what he’s capable of. On one occasion in Egypt, or perhaps in the Transvaal, he and his men ate his horse to stave off starvation. “Aww, you can’t eat your horse,” Bill says, acting like a caricature of an Old Hollywood cowboy at times. “It’s like eating a friend.”

That a moment of such relative levity and character building can then be followed by the chilling scene of their actual massacre of the Selk’nam, and a horrific moment in which MacLennan tries to get Segundo to rape one of the native women, shows a remarkable ability to switch from one tone to another. Galvez understands that inhumane acts can be committed by people who actually look quite human at other times – this is not just a monochromatic landscape of horror – and perhaps this is even more disturbing. Segundo is the one character who remains mostly silent, the film’s observer character and, in a sense, the moral centre, albeit as complicit in the massacre as he is himself.

Galvez constructed a picaresque travel film built around the three travelers meeting different people along the way. Having such a sense of who everyone is, as well as portraying the terror of the genocide against the Selk’nam, is a balance between intimate and epic that you wouldn’t expect from a first-time filmmaker. But Galvez, in his feature film debut, somehow pulls it off. The fact that he doesn’t make his points and leaves some parts of the story ambiguous is all the more impressive. He made a message film which is not a message film. And as beautiful as many of the images are, some compositions shot like Dutch Masters paintings by cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo, it never seems that indigenous suffering is just fodder for the art.

“The Settlers,” for all its artistry, is also a heartfelt work of activism with a message that needs to be heard in Chile. Just as Chilean schools today are taught nothing about the Pinochet coup in 1973 or the ensuing dictatorship, so nothing is taught about the genocide of the Selk’nam, a culture considered extinct, with only one person alive today able to speak their language.

Galvez’s film will likely be controversial in its home country in a way that another film, also debuting at Cannes 2023, won’t be in its: Martin Scorsese’s “Killers of the Flower Moon.” The genocide and displacement of Native Americans is most widely taught in the United States, but Scorsese’s film also illuminates a particular slice of that history that many viewers may not be familiar with. Each of these films comes from very different places: one is a debut film, the other from an old master, one made for very little, the other for about $200 million. Hopefully, the attention that “Killers” gets will carry over to “The Settlers,” who could use it. This is a film that proves that as easy as it is to forget the past, it is even easier when it has never been taught.

Grade: A-

“The Settlers” premiered at the 2023 Cannes Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution in the United States.

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