An unsettling set in The Settlers

Director: Felipe Gálvez Haberle Starring: Camilo Arancibia, Mark Stanley, Benjamin Westfall, Mishell Guaña, Alfredo Castro Running Time: 97 minutes

Though it can be challenging sometimes to place international cinema in the national context that it’s aiming to come from, viewers from Ireland especially don’t require a deep knowledge of Chilean history to get the angle of Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s brutal western. The violence, ignorance and greed that drives colonialism is familiar, but The Settlers is still bluntly brutal, presenting the nitty gritty of a nation’s manifest destiny for what it always is: ugly, cruel, pathetic.  

From the off Gálvez Haberle shows this ‘settling’ as a blight on the land. Through wide, sparse shots, the plains and mountains of Chile are shown throughout The Settlers as awe-inspiring, massive and beautiful, but the fences of land baron Don José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) run through them like a scar. Dividing the country, he and other uber-capitalists make themselves fat from afar, while guns-for-hire like displaced soldier Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley) do their dirty work from afar, terrorising the workers, slaughtering the indigenous. Stanley plays MacLennan with the raging shoulder-chip of a GB News presenter, a Scottish Little Englander with stolen valour and a lost soul. He, along with a loudmouth Texan Bill (Benjamin Westfall), are tasked by Menéndez with clearing a path on his lands through to the sea to ensure safe crossings for his livestock. What this means in practice is the obliteration of the people living on that land. Bringing along the half-indigenous Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) to work under them, they set off on blaze of brutality, bickering and boredom along the seemingly endless horizon. Segundo is forced to bear witness, Arancibia’s eyes glaring with frozen fear and fury, to the violence. The genocide is depressingly familiar.  

The genre trappings of Westerns; the brash talk, gun smoke and glorious vistas, are presented here with damning matter-of-factness, curdling into the cruelty they actually represent. As the protagonists’ wander, the cinematography capturing them again as tiny ants shuffling along a vast, empty screen, the question is begged in the audiences’ mind – all this, for what? The answer is cynical capitalism, the enrichment of Menéndez and his ilk. The Settlers perspective is clear and concise and well presented, but maybe lacking in an ability or ambition to expand it further.

The characters are thinly sketched, Segundo’s silence particularly bordering on oblique. The murderous and sexual violence shown is uncompromising, but there is a lack of a human element to contrast the dehumanising. Late in the game we’re introduced to indigenous woman Kiepja, a brilliant and stoic but all-too-brief performance by Mishell Guaña. She underscores the film’s perspective, but a third act gear shift undercuts her, and keeps The Settlers in a state of distancingly academic presentation.

There is perhaps too much to say, too much emotion to pull together and depict, too much to make right, in condemning the dismal darkness of colonialism, and in a first feature by the filmmaker, the efforts never quite come all the way together. Bleak and bloody, the work better captures the brutality of colonialism in pictures than in words. 

3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

The Settlers is screening now at the Irish Film Institute and coming soon to Mubi UK and Ireland.

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