Blood on the Soil
By Farihah Zaman
Dir. Felipe GĂˇlvez, Chile, MUBI
A brutally effective journey into hell on earth, Felipe GĂˇlvezâ€™s The Settlers reckons with the violent birth of modern-day Chile at the hands of Spanish colonizers all too willing to treat the people indigenous to the land as an obstacle to be cleared away like timber in the name of â€śprogress.â€ť
It is 1901 in Tierra del Fuego, sometimes called â€śel fin del mundoâ€ťâ€”the beginning of a new century, at the ends of the earth. Segundo (Camilo Arancibia) labors for relentless land developer JosĂ© MenĂ©ndez (Alfredo Castro); after his excellent marksmanship is discovered, he becomes a prime candidate for an excursion with two of the bossâ€™s white henchman, the terrifyingly erratic Scottish colonel MacLennen (Mark Stanley) and the almost cartoonishly Texan Bill (Benjamin Waterfall). The ostensible objective is to create a path for MenĂ©ndezâ€™s cattle so he can continue to pillage the land for financial gain, but it quickly becomes clear that this means massacring the Selkâ€™nam people who have committed the crime of inconveniencing the pursuit of capital by inhabiting their ancestral lands. Segundo, MacLennen, and Bill embark on what initially feels like an absurdist road trip, traversing the epic terrain, breaking up the punishing pace by bickering, telling problematic jokes, and getting wasted by the campfire. As they continue, however, and begin to face their task in earnest, the sense of dread grows, then erupts in a series of barbarous acts of increasing intensity.
First-time director GĂˇlvez incites discomfort that ripens into disgust. This approach breathes life back into the reality of what â€ścolonizingâ€ť really means, to resurrect it from history books so we might reconsider what the land we stand on bore witness to before us. Land stewardship and fostering a relationship with nature are values that exist across many indigenous communities globally, while the right to own and mine the land drives colonial campaigns; GĂˇlvez and director of photography Simone Dâ€™Arcangelo visually center breathtaking and sometimes alien landscapes in acknowledgement of their significance. From the surreal, dense forests to fields of tall grass, the cinematography is a reminder of what is at stake, as well as the meanness of men and their ambitions when considered against the grandeur of nature.
This way of centering landscape aligns with the aesthetics of the Western, further conveying the force and conflict required to â€śtameâ€ť a wild land. While the genre is named after a geographically and historically specific moment in the United States marked by feverish expansion into native inhabited territory, many nations in the Americas are similarly built on the symbolic and literal graves of indigenous people. However, the Western, and even the concept of the cowboy, have been adopted internationally, from Italy (which boasts a list of â€śspaghetti westernsâ€ť too numerous to mention) to Thailand (Tears of the Black Tiger), because practically all countries are familiar with the strategies of conquest, regardless of whether colonizers moved north, south, east, or west in order to enact it. The references to and extensions of this familiar genre in The Settlers, with its long stretches of men on horseback pushing into the unknown in search of glory, or riches, or mere survival, communicates so much without the need for more specific political and historical context.
Segundo possesses only enough power to save himself, and only by obeying those who have ravaged his land and people. Among the filmâ€™s central trio, Segundoâ€™s low position in the hierarchy imported by the white colonizers is clear, but when they collide with a group of Selkâ€™nam, Segundoâ€™s complicity in a harsh, unceremonious, and decisive bloodbath reveals that there are others who rank even further below him, and who cannot depend on their proximity to whiteness to keep them alive. In one of the most disturbing scenes, MacLennan, casually sitting among the innocent people he has killed and scalped, commands Segundo to rape a woman they have kept alive for this sick purpose. When he finds her, lying shocked and bleeding in the dark, he seems to finally become aware of the disparities in power even among brown-skinned native people, as well as the cost of his survival. Rather than subject her to being raped again, he heeds her gesturing that she is ready to die, takes out his gun and puts her out of her misery. While Segundo is also shown suffering deeply in this scene, the difference in circumstance between him and the unnamed woman is thrown into the sharpest relief; he has to accept the awful truth that the greatest act of mercy, of solidarity, that he can offer one of his fellow countrymen in this moment is the mercy of death. GĂˇlvez has reminded viewers of the painfully simple rules of conquest; here are two human beings, one of them lives, holding the gun, and one begs to be ended by it.
The script, penned by GĂˇlvez and Antonia Girardi, can be clunky, and in a few rare missteps the director overestimates what is required to jolt us out of complacency, offering plot points that approach prurience. The quiet characterization of Segundo presents a double-edged sword. On one hand there is his extreme passivity, punctuated by brief moments when simmering rage seems to boil over his calm exterior, symbolizing the broader silencing of local Chilean communities. On the other, his near silence also means that for much of the film, we, too, are immersed only in the ugly thoughts of violent oppressors and deprived the presence of the very people whose intentional extermination the film laments. This approach to his character could be seen as inhabiting, rather than challenging, these power structures. However, GĂˇlvezâ€™s willingness to engage with the poignant, slow-burn minutiae of war and attention to detail ultimately help the film transcend these issues.
Through the course of the events depicted in The Settlers, the Selkâ€™nam people were effectively wiped off the face of the earth. The last native speaker of their language, Chon, died in 1974, and there is only one known speaker of Chon left in Chile today. Meanwhile, the descendants of MenĂ©ndez, a real historical figure, continue to dominate the land, business, and economy of the Tierra del Fuego region. In just 15 years, a genocide had occurred. Naming such an injustice can be powerful, but contemporary corollaries have shown that repeated use of these phrases in moments of crisis can lessen their impact as people become inured to their true meaning. It feels impossible to fathom the horror of living inside of â€śgenocide,â€ť a word created to describe intentional, racially driven murder on a scale so massive no other words could convey its impact. When an entire people are the target of systematic colonial torture, oppression, and eradicationâ€”in an area as mind-bogglingly vast as the 20th-century Chilean wilds depicted in The Settlersâ€” what becomes of individual experience? For Segundo and the woman so brutalized, her only conceivable rescue is delivered by death? Does it become subsumed by the macrocosmic as the present becomes history? Or can experience, if not scale, be held by us, in remembrance of the lives lost? The Settlersâ€™ foray into the microcosmic, its focus on the cogs in the hulking machinery of conquest, and even its unflinching depiction of violence, bring human suffering within historyâ€”rather than the summation of that historyâ€”back into focus.