A young girl attempts to avenge her father’s death in this Chilean drama based on real events
Dir: Christopher Murray. Chile/Mexico/Germany. 2022. 101mins
A darkly brooding and delirious fable about a teenage girl seeking alternative justice for her father’s death, Christopher Murray’s Sorcery, a follow-up to his 2016 Venice film The Blind Christ, teems with so many meanings that it seems unsure which one to choose. Based on surprising, remarkable events that played out on a remote Chilean island in the 1880’s, this is part recreation of legend and history, part politico/religious allegory, part revenge story and part straight-up supernatural horror. There are so many strands that it’s a miracle that Murray can weave anything coherent from them; by using atmospherics as his anchor, the effect is submersive and compelling.
Teems with so many meanings that it seems unsure which one to choose
Chilean historical films focus so often on the 1970s and 80s that it’s refreshing to see a director going back a further hundred years to tackle themes relating to the suppression of indigenous heritage that are still very much on message today, both in Chile and elsewhere. This focus, combined with its salvaging of an intriguing historical footnote, suggests that, despite its perhaps inevitable excesses, Sorcery could be well placed to magic itself into politically alert festival sidebars; the presence of Pablo Larrain as a producer could also help.
The events unfold on the remote, rocky and ever-rainy island of Chiloe, off southern Chile, a location with an end-of-the-world feel. Thirteen-year-old Rosa (Valentina Veliz Caileo) is a servant at the house of Stefan (Sebastian Hulk), who one morning finds his entire flock of sheep lying dead in the field. Quick to blame “the Indians” for the crime, Stefan sets his dogs loose on Rosa’s father (Francisco Nunez), whose appalling demise is, thankfully, recorded in blurred long shot. In pursuit of justice, Rosa heads off to the local mayor Acevedo (Daniel Munoz), embittered by his posting to this hell hole, and then to a local priest: both wash their hands of the matter. So if the law and the church don’t want to know, who will a poor girl turn to?
Rosa shows up at the door of the magnificently grizzled Mateo Parancan (Daniel Antivilo): it’s unclear for a while who Mateo is, but we later learn that he’s the leader of an anti-colonial underground sect (or resistance group, depending on your point of view) of indigenous Huilliche called la Recta Provincia, which uses sorcery to achieve its political aims – for example, by turning themselves into animals which then kill the sheep of Germans who have occupied their land. And when Stefan’s kids eventually go missing, all hell breaks loose.
Beneath the abundant supernatural apparatus – the circling birds, the clothing made of human skin, the transformations and whispered rituals – this is a political drama. In one corner, we have the Recta Provincia, represented by the towering presence of Mateo, speaking in riddles just as fantasy elders are supposed to do. Despite their apparent violence, their aim is to restore some political balance in a land that has been cruelly taken from them first by the Spaniards and now by the Germans. In the other, the Germans, represented by the Christian hypocrite Stefan. In the middle, the weaselly Acevedo, who’s basically putty in the hands of the Germans and who will finally be forced into a radical rethink.
For the most part Murray, aided by superb camerawork from Maria Secco that exploits Chiloe’s full atmospheric potential, does a good job of luring us into this strange world. Visually, Sorcery is always oppressively dark and delicious. But following the surreal court trial of Mateo and his team, the tension flags as the free-form, supernatural element is foregrounded and events pile up too quickly to feel credible. Things become over reliant on the symbolic visuals, and on Leonardo Heiblum’s chilling but overused atonal string score.
The initially silent and uncomprehending Rosa is in the thick of it all, undertaking a traumatic journey from humble servant to justice warrior. The young Veliz Caileo delivers an understated and physically demanding performance in which the flame of Rosa’s injustice is sadly rarely visible on the surface, with the viewer unable to access her inner world. She remains a sympathetic presence, however, and one whose innocent world view grounds this incredible story.
Production companies: Fabula, Match Factory Productions, Pimienta Films
International sales: The Match Factory email@example.com
Producers: Nicolas Celis, Rocio Jadue, Juan de Dios Larrain, Pablo Larrain
Screenplay: Christopher Murray, Pablo Paredes
Cinematography: Maria Secco
Production design: Bernadita Baeza
Editing: Paloma Lopez
Music: Leonardo Heiblum
Main cast: Valentina Veliz Caileo, Daniel Antivilo, Sebastian Hulk, Daniel Munoz, Francisco Nunez