A lush, elemental reckoning unfurls across the relatively condensed runtime of Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s debut, The Settlers, even if few of its proceedings strictly qualify as terse. In fact, the film’s tersest narrative developments are matched by a formal languor which, enveloping the mountainous landscapes of Patagonia alongside its portraits of fin de siècle colonialism, conjures the phantasmic imprints of a history hastily realized and therefore not quite resolved. This history has a name and face: the Tierra del Fuego gold rush from 1883 to 1906, drawing Chileans, Argentinians, and Europeans alike to the southernmost tip of mainland South America in pursuit of untold riches, also precipitated the displacement and genocide of its indigenous tribes, notably the Selk’nam people. Whether due to purely economic calculation or to scientific (dis)interest — many of those slain had their skulls shipped to Europe for anthropological research and display — or simply out of wanton contempt, the colonial quest for profit heralded years of destruction whose reverberations continue to haunt the region’s illustrious cultural legacy.
In The Settlers, however, what’s at stake isn’t gold, but sheep: garish intertitles note the comparable worth of livestock, or “white gold,” to the colonial enterprise. The national drive toward modernization coincides happily with the individual search for wealth, and one José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro) pursues the expansion of his sheep business with ruthless resolve, entrusting the search for safe passage — to transport his herds across Patagonia — to a handful of mercenaries. They comprise Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), donning the uniform and prestige of the British army; Bill (Benjamin Westfall), Texan sharpshooter and archetype; and the mestizo Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), whose reserved demeanor stands in sharp contrast to the bluster of his companions — effectively his superiors. Traversing cliffs, ravines, and the odd smoke-stack of primitive civilization, Menéndez’s crew journey to the ends of the world and, by extension, those of the imagination. Their encounters with the Selk’nam, as well as other prospective settlers, gradually reveal a universe fundamentally bereft of certainty except in nature’s stark moral indifference: where the elemental terrain meets the mercurial will, violence almost always ensues.
Ironic, then, is the film’s title, which ostensibly substitutes the more explicit denotation of “colonizers” for an outwardly benign description of terraforming and settling on land implicitly parceled out for this specific purpose. But settling just as easily recalls its negative, often applied to the foreign and uncanny: in The Settlers, Patagonia unsettles precisely because no such injunction towards exploitation, whether God-given or legally decreed, is truly commensurate with the moral compasses of those caught up in its compelling fever. Segundo, whom we first see tending to livestock, is of ambiguous yet clearly different origin from the trigger-happy Alexander, and his complicity (first in taking up the mission at the latter’s request, then in directly perpetuating some of its violence himself) painfully comes to light in Gálvez’s antipodal Western. Playing with some of its most vaunted conventions — the men search, strip, and shoot their way to infamy — yet retaining a disquieting clarity amidst the delirium, The Settlers keenly dismantles the romanticism that percolates through most contemporary renditions of expansionist madness. In this regard, its acuity and reflexivity far surpass that of Hlynur Pálmason’s acclaimed but emotionally inert Godland, a diorama ravishing in substance but emptied of all formal inventiveness.
This inventiveness may be mistaken as the trappings of directorial inexperience, for Gálvez’s treatment of the settlers, especially before the onset of terrible savagery, vacillates somewhat arbitrarily at first. From antics of ribald masculinity, upon meeting their Argentinian counterparts, to downright sadism by the misty dawn of a sleepy indigenous dwelling, the film’s tonal dissonance traces, rather, a continuity between the markers of humanity and the viscera of untempered bloodlust; here, Gálvez defiantly reconfigures historical memory to juxtapose civilization with its inhuman tendencies, tacitly undermining the settlers’ claim to moral justification. Of course, this is nothing new in a time where past exploits have been routinely decried, and one could certainly situate The Settlers amid a tradition of post-colonial, post-modern cinema, the likes of which include works by Lucretia Martel, Lisandro Alonso, and Pedro Costa. But Gálvez’s ambitions are also more modest and more concrete; his film, bearing a quote from the humanist Thomas More, examines how the brutal logic of territorial and capital gain frequently overshadows any resurrection of humanist idealism. More, in his Utopia, wrote of sheep “now become so great devourers and so wild, that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.” What The Settlers does tremendously well is to revive this notion in a twofold way: first by underlining this materialist logic, and then by demonstrating how Patagonia’s colonial legacy, unlike the aspirations of many a prospector, is something that can never really be settled.
DIRECTOR: Felipe Gálvez Haberle; CAST: Sam Spruell, Alfredo Castro, Mariano Llinás, Marcelo Alonso; DISTRIBUTOR: MUBI; IN THEATERS: January 12; RUNTIME: 1 hr. 37 min.
Originally published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 1.