Sundance 2023 Review: SORCERY, Essential Chilean Anti-Colonialist Narrative

Lead Critic; San Francisco, California
 Sundance 2023 Review: SORCERY, Essential Chilean Anti-Colonialist Narrative

Chiloé Island lies off the southwestern coast of Chile. It’s a lush, verdant island, filled with rolling hills, forests, and farmland.

Over millennia, it’s been home first to indigenous people, chief among them the Huilliche, and then, like most of South/Latin America, Spanish conquistadores and European settlers, most of Spanish descent, each new wave displacing the indigenous people through the use of firearms and religion, principally Roman Catholicism.

By intention and purpose, Catholicism was — and to a large extent, still continues to be — used to eradicate the pre-Christian traditions of the Huilliche, in turn forcing them to reject their own long-held beliefs as witchcraft or sorcery.

The seemingly never-ending conflict between Catholicism and the Western colonialism it represents on one side and the indigenous traditions of the Huilliche people on the other animates co-writer/director Christopher Murray’s (The Blind Christ, Propaganda, Manuel de Ribera) latest film, Sorcery (Brujería), a deeply felt, empathetic, anti-colonialist, historical drama.

Set in the final years of the 19th century, Sorcery centers primarily on Rosa Raín (Valentina Véliz Caileo), a young Huilliche woman who, in working as a housekeeper for a family of German farmers, has learned German along with adopting their Christian beliefs. Whether Rosa holds those beliefs seriously or simply as a means of blending in with a White Christian family ultimately doesn’t matter: Her subservience and submissiveness can’t save her father when, after a German farmer accuses Rosa’s father of being involved in an act of resistance and sabotage (i.e., incapacitating or killing his sheep), he doesn't hesitate to release his dogs, viciously murdering him as a result.

If Rosa wasn’t aware of the harsh, unforgiving reality of living, let alone surviving, under Chilean, non-indigenous rule, she learns it soon after her father’s death. The nearby town’s mayor claims he can’t do anything: Dogs can’t be prosecuted for murder under Chilean law.

It’s also an easy out and a lesson to Rosa that the lives of indigenous people are worth less than livestock or domesticated animals. Rosa’s desire for justice or revenge, however, doesn’t diminish.

Instead, it grows and festers, driving every decision Rosa makes, including a first, tentative attempt to involve an older Huilliche man, Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), considered a sage in the ways of pre-Christian myths and traditions. He’s also rumored to be the head of the Recta Provincia, “a state within a state” organized and run by the Huilliche people themselves.

Sorcery repeatedly contrasts Mateo’s teachings based around healing, accommodation, and resistance (where needed), with Rosa’s unquenchable desire for justice or revenge (to Rosa, they share the same meaning). The increasingly ambiguous plot turns — they can be interpreted naturally or supernaturally — result in the sudden disappearance of two German colonists, the subsequent capture and imprisonment of Huilliche men deemed responsible, and Rosa’s attempts to navigate a safe, welcoming space for herself and safe passage for her people to retain their indigenous traditions without interference from the Chilean government.

Elevated by a strong central performance by Valentina Véliz Caileo, whose quiet expressivity conveys a multitude of emotions, thoughts, and feelings, and richly textured cinematography by Maria Secco (This Is Not a Comedy, Wind Traces, The Golden Dream), and a subtlety evocative score by Leonardo Heiblum (Maria Full of Grace), Sorcery stands out as a critique of European colonialism and imperialism and a young indigenous woman’s unique coming of age and into power.

Sorcery premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival.

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Christopher MurrayDaniel AntiviloMaria SeccoSorceryValentina Véliz Caileo

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