Théo Court’s sophomore feature employs cinematic craft of the utmost delicacy to explore themes of white colonialism and genocide. Horror lurks just off-screen, in the eyes of its haunted characters, and in the ellipses between scenes as one man grows increasingly complicit in terrible events as he becomes trapped in a lawless environment. A winner of the best director prize at Venice Horizons, Blanco en blanco is perhaps too aesthetically rarified and hermetic to have the full gut-wrenching impact such atrocities should muster, but is surgical in its themes of complicity and moral corruption.
At the dawn of the 20th century, photographer Pedro (Alfredo Castro) arrives in the Antarctic desolation of Tierra del Fuego, only recently colonised and seen as virgin territory for the imperialist arrivals; as pure as the frequent fresh coatings of snow. Pedro is there at the behest of the elusive and enigmatic plantation owner Mr Porter, to capture the likeness of his bride-to-be, Sara (Esther Vega). Disturbingly, Sara is still a child, and Pedro becomes obsessed. Whether this is down to base urges or aesthetic principles is unclear. When his mysterious employer fails to appear and he lacks the funds to leave the island, he turns to documenting the efforts of the white ranchers to eradicate the indigenous Selk’nam people in order to earn the necessary funds.
Appropriately, given the profession of his protagonist, Court and his DP José Ángel Alayón use frequent, long takes with a static camera. These are invariably immaculately composed and deepen the theme of aestheticised violence and the manipulation of the image. The static camera implies neutrality and impassivity; that the image simply ‘is’ and all meaning and ethical interpretation is provided solely by the viewer. Of course, although the camera can only capture what occurs in its limited frame, what lies within its borders can be manipulated and controlled; a fact that Court at times brings vividly and sickeningly to life.
With Pedro adrift in an unfamiliar land, attendant on the whim of a higher colonial authority than he, Blanco en blanco has a heavy parallel with Lucrecia Martel‘s Zama. Both have protagonists playing a passive but complicit role in the abuses of imperial power, and both are ultimately dehumanised; not by the indigenous peoples over whom they arrogantly assume superiority, but by the allegedly civilising forces they represent. Court’s film doesn’t have quite the epic sweep of Martel’s critically beloved work, with Pedro’s madness more internalised and his own personal heart of darkness chambered with purely aesthetic concerns, but the pair share a real kinship in theme and singularity of vision.
While hugely impressive, Blanco en blanco isn’t the easiest film to recommend. Its storytelling is oblique, it prefers bitter irony to righteous outrage in its depiction of the worst excesses of the South American imperial project, and it’s protagonist is a closed, inscutable book (and possibly harbours paedophilic tendencies). How to engage with a man who obsesses over the heroic poses of a bunch of mercenaries standing over the corpses of slain aboriginals? Nevertheless, it lingers long in the memory, not least through some truly haunting imagery, and the way it makes the viewer look again at the veracity of the images we take for granted.
Part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2020