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Bad Memories: The Settlers at TIFF 2023

(Photo: TIFF)

Directed by: Felipe Gálvez Haberle

Cast: Alfredo Castro, Mark Stanley, Benjamin Westfall, Camilo Arancibia

Canadians today acknowledge that this land is stolen on a daily basis. We repeat the land acknowledgment so much that it becomes white noise, like the national anthem. A land acknowledgment video plays before each film at the Toronto International Film Festival—many audience members were on their phones. Yet we will continue to do so because it is the first step in reconciling with this country’s bloody, shameful origins. Chilean director Felipe Gálvez’s debut feature film, The Settlers, is a visceral, lovingly crafted Western about colonialism’s inhuman cruelty and the birth of his nation.

The film follows three men of varying moral quality travelling across South American lands on behalf of a wealthy man who calls himself its owner. The film’s protagonist is the mostly silent, mixed-race Segundo, expertly played by Camilo Arancibia. Arancibia’s eyes express more emotion than any dialogue could. An ex-British soldier, Alexander MacLennan (Mark Stanley), and the American cowboy, Bill (Benjamin Westfall), join Segundo on the journey. Segundo is not an equal because of his skin colour, and we see how much racism he can take before snapping. The three ride through the picturesque wilderness and commit atrocities against the Indigenous population.

The Settlers is equally well-made and hard to watch, as Gálvez shows in graphic detail every escalating crime they commit against innocent Indigenous women and children. The cinematography is fantastic, featuring frequent extreme close-up shots of human and horse eyes to contrast with the environment’s overwhelming scale. Many frames could have been paintings. Lingering on scenery characterizes the Western genre, and this film does not deviate from this expectation. The slow pace of dialogue is authentically Western, as is the brutal violence. Every actor sells their character sincerely. The sound design was immersive. The Settlers is an incredible debut feature film that shows Gálvez as a promising new director in the international film circuit.

However, the pacing takes a nosedive near the end. It felt like several scenes were missing. Critically, a character we are supposed to hate and beg to see killed by an Indigenous character dies off-screen. Gálvez introduces new characters who announce their death in the film’s final act. Disappointment filled the theatre air as these new characters kept talking. The ending was powerful, but I would have wanted more of a satisfying lead-up. The audience clapped because they thought a scene was the ending, but it continued. There was a mesmerizing supernatural sequence in the middle act with no payoff—like a deleted scene accidentally left in the final cut. The film would benefit from a director’s cut re-release.

Before the screening, the TIFF curator told us that this film was about memory—the story of how Chile came to be. I appreciate the film’s honest portrayal of its country’s worst memories. As a Canadian, second-generation university student who has seen several horrifying films in history classes about this country’s bad memories, I wonder how many more films I can see about Indigenous torture before it becomes white noise like the land acknowledgement. I asked the guy beside me what he thought of the film. “I feel sad,” he said with a handful of popcorn. I told him I felt the same, then returned to the metropolis on Indigenous land outside.

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