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Review: A camera is an accomplice to genocide in the somber Chilean drama ‘White on White’

A man poses behind a camera in the movie "White on White."
Alfredo Castro in the movie “White on White.”
(Bendita Film Sales)

The Times is committed to reviewing theatrical film releases during the COVID-19 pandemic. Because moviegoing carries risks during this time, we remind readers to follow health and safety guidelines as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and local health officials.

Inhospitable landscapes dominate “White on White,” a formally rigorous indictment on the colonialist pursuits of Europeans and their descendants in Chile during the early 1900s from writer-director Théo Court (co-written with Samuel M. Delgado). The fascinatingly somber period piece is the current Chilean Oscar entry for best international feature film.

Arguably the most impressively versatile actor in Latin America today, Alfredo Castro plays Pedro, a photographer for hire entrusted with preserving the image of a child bride on one of his plates. His employer, Mr. Porter, an unseen landowner, rules by proxy through men with guns taming the Patagonian terrain and enslaving or murdering the Selk’nam, the region’s Indigenous people.

Not sinless, Pedro partakes not with bullets, but something even more powerful in its endurance: the images his lens extracts from orchestrated tableaux vivants.

Exquisite in every frame, courtesy of gifted cinematographer José Ángel Alayón, “White on White” communicates in extreme wide shots that dwarf the rugged invaders in the vastness of the domain they are bent on possessing. Visually, their diminutive presence from afar reiterates that these figures are meant to be archetypes and not full-bodied characters.

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The distance between subject and viewer only shortens via the line of fire of Pedro’s lens. In taking portraits of others, he creates fleeting moments of artificial intimacy — in those instances, the aspect ratio changes to reflect that we are looking through his device. Torches burning in the night sky, seemingly as the only source of light, heighten the film’s overall unnervingly hypnotic atmosphere.

Court’s narrative occupies a similar wavelength as other recent historical dramas from the region with unique political sensibilities, namely Lisandro Alonso’s “Jauja” and Lucrecia Martel’s “Zama.” In these examples of stories of unwelcomed white settlers in remote South American pastures, the creators lace their inquisitive studies with humanism or humor.

In “White on White,” what permeates is a merited sense of dread, by design too starkly impenetrable on emotional grounds, but direct in its fierce thematic intent.

Purposefully left off the film’s most harrowing shot is an Indigenous man dressed in Western clothing. From his place of servitude as means of survival, he witnesses how those like him are slaughtered for despicable sport. With the camera on their side, the oppressors register their acts as history, painting genocide as picture-perfect victory.

‘White on White’

In Spanish and English with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes

Playing: Starts Dec. 10, Laemmle Monica Film Center, Santa Monica


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