Tales of expeditions to explore previously unincorporated lands are all too often whitewashed in history as positive roots of a bright young nation, offering an unearned absolution of the subjugation and decimation of preexisting populations by uninvited newcomers. Felipe Gálvez explores this concept in his directorial debut The Settlers, which begins in 1901 with three very different men traveling the vast Chilean landscape owned by their employer. As its protagonists discover a seemingly endless potential of lackluster possibility, they also reveal much about themselves and how much power plays into the way people interact with each other.
José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) needs someone to go through the massive amount of land he now owns and tasks Lieutenant Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), a Brit, to head the expedition. MacLennan is confident that he can be successfully aided by Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), who is of half-indigenous heritage, but Menéndez, doubting the intellect of a native, insists that he bring Bill (Benjamin Westfall), a foul-mouthed Texan cowboy, along as well. Their trip takes them through the Andes Mountains and across the Argentine border, a marker that seems arbitrary given how little other than the beauty of nature surrounds it.
It’s clear from the start of the film that none of the individuals who have newly arrived to a country that is not their own respect the native populace. An early scene finds MacLennan making fun of Bill and his American sensibilities, and his lighthearted mockery turns to outright cruelty when the typically silent Segundo offers his perspective. He rarely speaks because he knows how his opinion is valued, and he passes silent judgment on those who speak far too much without having anything productive or humane to say. Bill deems him untrustworthy merely because of the color of his skin, positing that you can never know who he’ll shoot, but if there was ever anyone more deserving of catching friendly fire, it would be a bigot like Bill. Both white men also have no problem with killing whatever unsuspecting natives they come across during their journey, seeing themselves as somehow legitimized in ethnic cleansing as the new and apparently rightful masters of a land they have claimed for themselves.
The Settlers, which is Chile’s official Oscar submission despite the fact that almost all its dialogue is in English, presents a historical portrait that’s equally fascinating and disturbing. When MacLennan is speaking with Menéndez, there’s a degree of subservience and respect based on his working relationship, but out in the wild, he does as he pleases and treats both Bill and Segundo in a condescending manner. When others they encounter have the upper hand, it’s mesmerizing to see how things shift and how that lack of power forces those who typically exude bravado to retreat into a state of submission.
The Settlers is shot like a western, frequently panning back dramatically to reveal more of the ever-expanding landscape and the miles and miles of blank canvas that these characters have been charged to ensure remains blank enough for nothing to stand in their way. Cinematographer Simone D’Arcangelo presents the unknowable magnitude of the terrain and contrasts it with the sharpness of faces masking who they really are. The lighting plays a major part in establishing and emphasizing the film’s tone, which is somber but also tinged with unexpected humor as bored men in any era find idiotic ways to amuse themselves and pass the time.
What proves most lingering and captivating about this engrossing film is how it chooses to tell its narrative. A time jump midway through its run results in a good portion of the story being told retrospectively by others rather than seen played out as it happens. That adds a haunting element to it because its events are concluded and set in stone, but also casts doubt on how entirely accurate they may be. This film demonstrates how people present and portray themselves, adding or inflating as they see fit in pursuit of their own self-aggrandizing. While elements of this story are all too familiar because of many colonialist projects throughout history, this deliberate and intentional film is a welcome if uncomfortable opportunity for reflection on the nature of imperialist projects and the attempted erasure of existing cultures.
This review is from the 2023 New York Film Festival. The Settlers is the Chilean submission for the International Feature Film Oscar and will be distributed in the U.S. by MUBI.