White on White review – a damning snapshot of South American colonisation

A loner photographer looks down on white settlers without realising he’s part of the problem in a striking, ambiguous historical drama

Colonisation does not come off well in this sparse and striking drama, set in snowbound 19th-century Tierra del Fuego. It’s a sombre study of the corrupted values and decayed morals that enabled a genocide; it centres on a photographer who considers himself superior to the coarse white settlers around him, but is really part of the same system. This is Pedro (Alfredo Castro), a middle-aged loner who has been brought to this end-of-the-world location to take the wedding portrait of Mr Porter, the big landowner. But when he arrives, Mr Porter is nowhere to be found; only his bride, Sara, who looks little older than a teenager. In an early, uncomfortable scene, Pedro blithely “arranges” Sara into what he considers an attractive pose, pulling her wedding dress off her shoulders, ostensibly for the groom’s benefit: “He’ll like it better this way.” The scene is to be reprised even more excruciatingly later on, after Pedro takes a shine to Sara and sets up a more “artistic” photoshoot.

Pedro doesn’t find much else to appreciate here. In Mr Porter’s absence, he is consigned to an extended stay among the (overwhelmingly male) settlers, whose exploits he dignifies with his camera but whose company he shuns – initially, at least. These Europeans are making their first inroads into this landscape: erecting houses, putting up fences, and killing and kidnapping the indigenous population. They are paid according to the number of human ears they bring back. “Think of it as humanitarian work,” one of them tells Pedro.

Director Théo Court does a fine job of capturing the barren beauty of this landscape and using it to suggest the broader moral vacuum. There are contrasts between the blinding daytime brightness and pitch-black nights, human figures are reduced to ant-like presences in the vast expanses. At times, though, the storytelling is a little too distant, and the narrative momentum falters. Perhaps conscious of the issues of representation he is dealing with, Court invites us to come to our own conclusions rather than spoon-feeding us a point of view.

• White on White is released on 30 June on Mubi.


Steve Rose

The GuardianTramp

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