‘The Settlers’ movie review: A quietly haunting tale on the Selk’nam genocide

‘The Settlers’ may require polishing in way of its performances, but is an example of a simply told yet richly-engaging story

Updated - March 30, 2024 05:41 pm IST

Published - March 30, 2024 05:08 pm IST

A still from ‘The Settlers’ 

A still from ‘The Settlers’ 

Chilean period drama The Settlers is a starkly quiet film. With sparse use of dialogue that mirrors its visuals of the vast empty swathes of the Andes mountains, the films takes on a tragic and violent subject. It is a quiet film, but that doesn’t mean it has to be a silent one, and the grasp of this concept is what elevates Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s directorial debut.

Set in 1901 in the Tierra del Fuego region in Chile, The Settlers chronicles the genocide of the indigenous Selk’nam people. To reclaim large portions of land, businessman José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) sends off a team on an expedition across the Andes to drive out the indigenous people. Comprising a former British Army Lieutenant Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), and an American gunman Bill (Benjamin Westfall), the duo is also accompanied by Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), who is a mestizo (mixed race man, who is part indigenous) selected for his skill as an expert marksman.

The Settlers (Spanish, English)
Director: Felipe Gálvez Haberle
Cast: Camilo Arancibia, Mark Stanley, Benjamin Westfall, Alfredo Castro, Marcelo Alonso, Sam Spruell, and others
Run-time: 97 minutes
Storyline: In early 20th centure, three men set off on an expedition in the Andes mountains as part of the ongoing genocide of the indigenous Selk’nam people

The rest of the 97-minute film can be divided into two parts. Haberle who wrote the script along with Antonia Girardi and Mariano Llinás unfolds the slow, yet steadily, moving narrative of how the genocide unfolds as the trio move across the land. He builds up the racial tensions, that are already existing, between Segundo and the white duo who suspect him to be disloyal. The script drives home this point frequently switching between languages, as Bill and MacLennan openly insult Segundo in English when he is near them. They likely posses knowledge that he understands the language, but despite being only employees in this land, the duo is not averse to replicating the settler-coloniser behaviour of the Latin-American Chileans.

When they chance upon the first small group of indigenous people, Bill and MacLennan are enthusiastic participants in the massacre, while Segundo freezes up. Later, they ask him how many he managed to kill, but he tries to dismiss the question with a vague, “I don’t know.” Not satisfied with his behaviour, MacLennan threatens violence against him if Segundo doesn’t commit violence himself.

Camilo Arancibia’s performance is truly the breakout one of this film; he is given very few lines, but tends to express a lot more even with his guarded demeanour. While Benjamin and Mark manage to tick off the basics of their roles, their characters come off as still a bit rough around the edges and could have used more work.

The film spends its last 30 minutes in a future timeline. Seven years later, in the ostentatious halls of Menéndez’s home, plans are drawn up on how to cover up his deeds so that the origins of the nation-state of Chile can be free from the stains of the blood of indigenous people. Segundo, sadly, is once again pulled from his life to participate in these crimes.

The Settlers, while may require a polishing in the way of its performances, is an example of a simply told yet richly engaging story. With how Haberle layered the meaning of the presence of white people of Chilean land, carrying out a genocide for monetary compensation, his future works hold a lot of promise.

The Settlers is available for streaming on MUBI

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