“Spencer” director Pablo Larraín has thrown his weight behind Chilean Oscar entry “White on White” (“Blanco en Blanco”), hailing it as a “really interesting, strange and highly violent film.”
“White on White” also addresses issues that are “highly unsettling and complex and which haven’t been resolved or at least discussed at sufficient length,” Larraín adds.
His words come from a conversation, which he moderates, with “White on White’s” director Théo Court and star Alfredo Castro that can be watched at the latest Academy Awards Edition of CinemaChile Talks.
Some sort of sympathy for “White and White” may be inevitable.
Larraín was once a student of Castro’s, a notable theater director who has acted in six of Larraín’s nine films, starring in four: “Tony Manero,” Larrain’s 2008 breakout; 2010’s “Post Mortem”; 2012’s Oscar-nominated “No,” playing opposite Gael García Bernal; and 2015 Berlin Grand Jury Prize winner “The Club,” which persuaded Natalie Portman to play the lead in “Jackie.”
But “White on White” also turns on themes which play out throughout Larraín’s own films: How larger historical context shapes a collective mindset; personal power structures; time and timelessness.
Co-written and directed by Court (“Ocaso”), a Chilean-Spanish cineaste, and set in Chile’s deep South some time in the late 19th century, “White on White” questions the idea of progress in lawless capitalism.
Castro stars as a portrait photographer, Pedro, who is summoned to the rambling mansion of a powerful but ever absent landowner, Mr. Porter, to immortalize his wedding.
Pedro is instantly besotted by the beauty of the pre-teen bride-to-be, Sara, and ends up taking photos of her in an erotic pose.
Beaten by his employer’s hired-hands, he is forced to accompany Porter’s men on a brutal mission in Tierra del Fuego, to hunt and murder the local Indigenous Selknam people, immortalizing the moment in photos showing how Chile South is being won.
Asked by Larraín, how he came to think of using the figure of a photographer to capture a key social and political moment in Chile and Latin America’s history, Court explains in the conversation that he was struck by photographs of the Selknam massacre, perpetrated in 1886 by Julius Popper, Tierra del Fuego’s most powerful landowner, which left 78 Selknam tribes people dead.
Popper was photographed after the massacre, standing near the naked body of a dead Selknam, as three of his men training their Winchester rifles on the horizon, as if to shoot attackers.
Shot with the plate cameras of the era, the photographs took minutes to make, so had to be staged after the massacre, Court observes. “This question of representation captured me,” Court says.
It also allowed for a “triple game,” playing off the vision of his camera, the photographer’s camera and the audience gaze to comment on “how we live horror and its aesthetic rendering, the complicity involved in the images and our vision.”
“White on White” captures in meticulous detail how Chile’s West – here, its deep South – was conquered. This took in the systematic displacement, genocide and low-cost employment of indigenous communities in the name, just as in the U.S., of the Western world bringing supposed civilization to savage lands.
Early on in the film, one of Pedro’s photos captures land laborers erecting a fence. Just as in “Spencer,” where the concept of unmovable tradition is accepted by the whole of the royal family, save Diana, in “White on White,” Larraín observes, “People are property of other people and ideas. Everybody has an owner and Alfredo’s character captures these ideas of property as they evolve.”
Castro says he was drawn to the film by its “radical theme of genocide” – Ángela Loij, the last full-blood Selk’nam, died in 1974. His character observes “neo-liberalism and the degradation of the planet. That could hardly be more contemporary.”
Larraín comments that “White on White” reminded him of the human zoos which were created in Europe at around the same time as the action of the film in order to exhibit Indigenous people. “The structures which permitted such zoos haven’t been talked about enough,” he says.
“White on White” world premiered this September at the Venice Film Festival’s Horizons sidebar, where Court won a Silver Lion for the section’s best director and a film writers’ Fipresci Prize. Sold by Bendita Film Sales and acquired for North America by Outsider Films, it is produced by Spain’s El Viaje Films, Chile’s Quijote Films, Kundschafter Filmproduktion in Germany and France’s Pomme Hurlante Films.
Variety bowed in exclusivity its first international trailer in the runup to Venice.