'Blanco en blanco': Film Review

El Gouna Film Festival
Seductive, distressing and unforgettable.

Spanish-Chilean helmer Theo Court ('Ocaso') won the Venice Horizons best director award for his bitterly ironic period piece probing genocide and aesthetics.

The wanton massacre of Chile’s indigenous people by the white settlers who arrived in the late 19th and early 20th centuries provides an undercurrent of horror in Theo Court’s thought-provoking second feature, Blanco en blanco. A young girl’s loss of innocence at the hands of an artistic photographer is a mere foretaste of the white man’s inhuman treatment and murder of native women. The intriguingly elliptical narrative and the use of highly aestheticized cinematography and music draw the viewer into a web of genocide and a series of shocking events.

After its bow in Venice Horizons, where it won the best director prize and a FIPRESCI award, this Stray Dogs release is making the festival rounds. But it has the stuff to go beyond the label of festival film and hook intelligent audiences looking for something meaty and original as well as beautiful to look at.

Unfolding on the vast plains of Tierra del Fuego, the story is clearly inspired by the real-life figure of the wealthy Romanian Julius Popper, a self-styled conquistador who enriched himself mining gold and created his own army to protect his lands. He also paid bounty hunters to kill the indigenous Selk’nam people, whom he considered a threat to his possessions. He liked to take a photographer along on his manhunts to immortalize his kills, which in a short time reduced their number from 3,000 to 500.

Veteran actor Alfredo Castro lends an ambiguous touch to the gentleman photographer Pedro, who has been summoned to a remote part of Tierra del Fuego by the mysterious, all-powerful “Mr. Porter” to photograph his wedding and his bride-to-be. Introduced with an air of mystery that is typical of the film, he appears trudging across snow-blown pampas with dogs and men. In the isolated but genteel house of Mr. Porter’s fiancée, he is surprised to discover that Miss Sara (Esther Vega) is a mere child. She is brought out like a pretty baby, dressed in a Victorian wedding gown that emphasizes her immaturity. Justifying himself to her stiff-necked guardian Aurora (Lola Rubio), he says, "Mr. Porter will like it better this way” and professionally pulls the girl’s dress down to expose her bare shoulders for the portrait.

Mr. P is so delighted that he pays Pedro to photograph his land, houses and possessions, including the roughneck gunmen who work for him. A quick montage shows how Pedro, an artist to the core, takes the assignment very seriously. There's still no sign of the actual Mr. Porter, and the wedding keeps getting postponed. Pedro can’t get Miss Sara out of his mind and he conceives a sick desire, bordering on pedophilia, to undress her for his camera. As might be imagined, this blatant betrayal of trust sets off a wildfire of vendetta.

Given the harsh subject matter, it’s surprising how delicately Court handles all this. The screenplay, co-written by Samuel L. Delgado, prefers to hint and suggest what is going on just outside the frame, while editor Manuel Munoz Rivas keeps the worst off-camera. The raging frustration of Rubio’s prim guardian Aurora is unveiled in a drunken dance scene with Pedro’s no-less-unhappy assistant Arturo (played as mumbling and half-crazed by David Pantaleon), a would-be liberal who during a hunt urges paid killers to spare the women and children.

Pedro, too, becomes a prisoner in this degenerative Wild West, where the last veneer of civilization, which one hoped he would represent, has been stripped off to a black heart of darkness. The characters, so isolated and alone in long shot, become an indistinguishable mass in close interiors, as in a celebration scene where the missing Mr. Porter offers liquor and native women to his men in absentia. Pedro and Arturo become witnesses and participants to their ferocious use of these embarrassed women, who are pushed into the crowded party room like mice into a cage of jackals. The next morning the women are missing and a fresh grave mound is visible outside the shack.

The film wants viewers ask questions about how “artistic” images can be used to aestheticize and whitewash historical events, cleverly represented by DP Jose Angel Ayalon’s dazzling shots of snowstorms obscuring the landscape and nighttime hunts by torchlight. But the game is revealed in a key scene when Pedro painstakingly positions the hunters in poses that recreate a period photograph of Julius Popper holding a rifle with his foot on a naked Selk’nam he has just killed. Jonay Armas’ highly original score goes beyond music with rhythmic sounds that link the historical period to our times..

Production companies: El Viaje Films, Kundschafter Filmproduktion, Pomme Hurlante Films, Quijote Films
Cast: Alfredo Castro, David Pantaleon, Lola Rubio, Lars Rudolph, Esther Vega, Alejandro Goic, Ignacio Ceruti 

Director: Theo Court
Screenwriters: Theo Court, Samuel L. Delgado
Producers: Jose Alayon, Marina Alberti, Andreas Banz, Eva Chillon, Giancarlo Nasi
Director of photography: Jose Angel Alayon
Production designer: Amparo Baeza
Costume designer: Muriel Parra
Editor: Manuel Munoz Rivas
Music: Jonay Armas
Venue: El Gouna Film Festival (competition)
World sales: Stray Dogs

100 minutes