BY Arun A.K. in Film , Opinion | 02 FEB 24

‘The Settlers’ Is Felipe Gálvez Haberle’s Decolonial Western

In his feature film debut, the director depicts Chile’s violent history while shedding light on the Selk’nam genocide

BY Arun A.K. in Film , Opinion | 02 FEB 24

To this day, the story of the genocide of the Selk’nam Indigenous tribe of Patagonia is missing from Chile’s school curriculum. In his revisionist western drama, The Settlers (2023), Felipe Gálvez Haberle opens the darkest unacknowledged chapters of his country’s history. While the director presents a snapshot – just one brutal incident – it serves as a microcosm of the mass extermination carried out by settler-colonists.

The film opens with a quotation from Thomas More’s 1516 book Utopia: ‘Your sheep […] become so great devourers […] that they eat up and swallow down the very men themselves.’ Moulded in an emphatic, red font and complemented by jarring, ominous drumbeats, the text sets the tone for the mayhem that unfolds. The whole film is broken up into chapters whose names evoke myths (‘The King of White Gold’, ‘Half Blood’, ‘The Ends of the Earth’ and ‘The Red Pig’) and likewise treats character introductions in a similar manner. Gálvez cleverly uses these moments to imprint the idea of mythmaking on the audience. This approach might initially come across as an ode to spaghetti westerns, but the filmmaker quickly establishes his intention of taking down the genre. Western films were propagandistic in their inception, part of Hollywood’s mission to sanitize the history of America: the cowboy became a mythical figure. But Gálvez hollows out the familiar tropes of the western to explore the despair and terror created by colonialism.

Felipe Gálvez Haberle, The Settlers, 2023, film still. Courtesy: MUBI

It’s the turn of the 20th century. The setting is the vast expanse of Tierra Del Fuego, owned by Spanish oligarch José Menéndez (a real-life historical figure whose descendants own much of the land there today). Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), nicknamed ‘The King of White Gold’, desires to purge the land of the native ‘brutes’ with the excuse of carving out a safe passage to bring his sheep to the Atlantic. He commands the barbaric Scottish ex-army man, Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), to pillage the area any way he sees fit. MacLennan only wants one marksman to accompany him: a mixed-race mestizo of Indigenous descent himself, Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), who is, Menéndez fears, of dubious allegiances. Menéndez insists that MacLennan also take Bill (Benjamin Westfall), an American mercenary who ‘they say can smell a Native from miles away’.

The trio sets out on their journey across Tierra del Fuego’s distinctive, sparse, forest landscape. Shot in the Academy format by Simone D’Arcangelo (The Tale of King Crab, 2021), the slow zooming and panning across the monumental landscapes creates a disorienting effect. Extreme long shots frame the trio as diminutive figures, powerless against the might of nature. Perhaps it’s the realization of our insignificance that triggers the monstrous urge for self-aggrandizement and domination in our species. 

Unlike classic westerns, in which expeditions foster camaraderie, Gálvez’s nihilistic script spirals down a path of mistrust and suspicion, where it’s every man for himself. The boisterous MacLennan claims that on a previous expedition, he and his men ate his horse to fend off starvation. ‘You can’t eat your horse,’ Bill objects. ‘That’s like eating a friend.’ Any hint of Bill’s humanity is dismissed soon enough however, in a chilling scene of the real-life massacre of a group of Selk’nam people, followed by a horrific moment of sexual violence. Segundo remains mostly silent; it is through his watchful eyes that we view the mounting carnage and frenzy of aggression. 

The Settlers is divided into two tonally contrasting sections. The first takes on a mythic western quality, building towards the horrific massacre and a subsequent encounter with the malevolent Colonel Martin (Sam Spruell, who rivals the heinousness of Menéndez). By the time Martin shows up, Gálvez has taken us into a dark place, where rape, murder and dismemberment collide drastically. However, he steers clear of fetishizing violence and turning his film into an adrenaline-pumping blood-fest: by depicting just one graphic incident, he leaves it to the audience to imagine the other depravities of which these men were capable.

The use of music in the first section is as jarring as the subject matter: percussive and warlike. And just when the film threatens to sink into violent chaos, it leaps forward by seven years, overlooking the multiple massacres perpetrated by the characters. Though this feels somehow uneven, the conspicuousness of the ellipsis might allude to the deliberate ‘whitewashing’ of Chile's history.

Felipe Gálvez Haberle, The Settlers, 2023, film still. Courtesy: MUBI

The transition to the second part of the film is set to the lullaby ‘All the Pretty Little Horses’ (n.d.), performed in the mansion of Menéndez in Punta Arenas. An emissary from Santiago, Vicuña (Marcelo Alonso), visits Menéndez, attempting to gather information about MacLennan’s infamous rampage, suggesting times are changing with an establishment now wishing to make peace with the indigenous people. However, the Menéndez clan proudly assert their role in nation-building and the creation of reputable institutions. D’Arcangelo and Gálvez film them at sharp angles, creating an eerie atmosphere of sin lurking behind the projected veil of moral uprightness.

By returning at the end to the point of view of Segundo (who is leading a married life on Chiloé Island), Gálvez tries finally to give him agency, but with Vicuña and his officials coercing him to recount the gory details of his bloody mission, he is again left with very little choice. The Settlers closes with red-tinged archival images of Chile in the early 20th century: a potent, unsettling symbol of the blood-soaked identity of the nation and the continent. 

Main: Felipe Gálvez Haberle, The Settlers, 2023, film still. Courtesy: MUBI

Arun A.K. is a writer and film critic based in Mumbai, India.