It isn’t difficult to step back into the turn of the 20th century that’s presented in “The Settlers,” in part because of how vividly Felipe Gálvez renders the period, but equally so the way in which our current reality seems like a not-so-distant echo. As minions of Don José Menéndez (Alfredo Castro), an insatiable landowner looks to expand his acreage in the Chilean Patagonia, fumble about laying claim to unmarked territory in his name, you aren’t watching the work of shrewd tacticians or visionaries, but those of incurable venality and a capacity for brute force, perhaps not caring if their indiscretions are sanitized in future retellings but not unreasonable to expect it when seeing themselves as the heroes of their own story. This mythmaking has already started to fall apart in real time to follow any of the pioneers of this generation’s land grab on social media when those who found fortune in the Internet increasingly reveal themselves by the day as cutthroat colonizers only reinforcing age-old systems of power rather than benevolent innovators, and Gálvez and co-writer Antonia Girardi bring a contemporary edge to the history they recount, making conquistadors appear as the barbarians they are, usually making the poorest choice available to them when any decisions need to be made.
“The Settlers” is grimly amusing when it feels like its closer to the actual history while feeling like a subversion of how it’s typically related, cleverly considering how the powerful are given the benefit of the doubt and the stories around them accrue a nobility and trustworthiness they generally haven’t deserved. Leaning into the formal embellishments that turn period pieces into unquestioned texts when divided into chapters with big bold title cards and underscored with grandiose music asserting a glorious pursuit, the film makes for a riveting tall tale that’s constantly making its characters appear smaller, stumbling around for their survival in uncharted regions where rules can be made up on the fly. It’s never spelled out exactly how Don José came to control so much land, but then again it probably doesn’t need to be as he gives orders to Alexander Maclellan (Mark Stanley), a former lieutenant in the British Army, to find a route that could transport sheep across the Atlantic, sternly warning him not to trust any of the indigenous community that he abhors.
McClellan isn’t exactly more tolerant of other cultures than Don Jose, but he does value his own life, which is why he insists on taking Segundo (Camilo Arancibia), a half-indigenous and half-white laborer along with him after proving himself to be a marksman and can fish with his bare hands, while he is also saddled with Bill (Benjamin Westfall), a proudly caucasian tracker from Texas with no moral compass, to appease Don Jose. This trio is as complementary of one another as one would expect, with Maclellan and Bill constantly going nowhere in arguing about the best way forward and similar to the comedies of Armando Iannucci, self-preservation and being right hold far more value to the vulgar characters than making progress, winning arm wrestling matches and fist fights but brought to their knees by never being savvy enough to know what they don’t know.
“I thought it would be larger,” McLellan can be heard saying when an Argentinean welcomes the trio to the Andes, as if the mountains fail to impress him based on what he’s heard and one can say the same about him and his ilk as “The Settlers” wears on, showing how clumsy and vicious their actions were in building the infrastructure on which much of the economy still stands today. The filmmakers are smart enough not to leave out their own complicity as history continues to be rewritten, finding a novel approach to put a bow on the entire thing involving the recent advent of a camera as a way of capturing testimony while questioning its accuracy when so many participants are willing to lie. To go by “The Settlers,” perhaps nothing about the past should be entirely trusted, but it sure feels as if Gálvez and crew are delivering the truth.
“The Settlers” will screen at the Cannes Film Festival as part of Un Certain Regard on May 23rd at 8:30 am at the Debussy Theatre and 3:30 pm at the Cineum Imax, May 24th at 3:30 pm at the Cineum Aurore and 4 pm at Licorne and May 25th at 11 am at Arcades 3.