‘White on White’ Review: The Camera Lens Is an Instrument of Violence in a Haunting Colonialist Reflection

Studying the Selk'nam genocide through a hired photographer's jaded eyes, Chile's Oscar submission demands viewers' patience, and rewards it with startling aesthetic and political rigor.

White on White

Traveling photographer Pedro is a drawn, taciturn type, who prefers to let his camera do the talking. Whether he’s shooting a coy bride or a gang of white huntsmen posing with their Indigenous human kill, his mien is impassive, his brow furrowed, seeking composed perfection in the most rattling of images. “White on White” likewise conjures ravishing beauty from hellish historical ugliness, though it’s mindful throughout of the camera’s conspiratorial capacity for violence. As cold and quiet and witchily mesmerizing as a nighttime snowfall, Spanish-Chilean director Théo Court’s formidable second feature considers a devastating chapter of South America’s colonialist history through the eyes of someone at once a perpetrator and an observer — tacitly asking, at a certain point, what the difference even is.

An arresting and subtly challenging Chilean submission for the international feature Oscar, “White on White” first popped on the festival circuit in 2019, winning awards in Venice’s Horizons sidebar, but has only trickled through to theaters this year. That’s a fitting enough trajectory for a film that is itself the slowest and lowest of burns, with Court (returning a decade after his debut feature “Ocaso”) taking his time to establish a chilly, pristine visual language that, as it turns out, contains all the clues to a scorching political undertow.

Per the title, “White on White” is a drama of fine moral gradations and hard-to-read motivations, in which the crimes of colonial settlers and their employees are evaluated on the palest, most minutely differentiated of grayscales. Still, Court finds plenty of room for darkness here, beginning with DP Jose Angel Alayon’s introductory montage of high-contrast, Ansel Adams-style snowscapes — a forbidding welcome to fin-de-siècle Tierra del Fuego, where a much-feared (and never seen) white landowner, Mr. Porter, has bloodily claimed a large expanse of barren land. Shadows reign, too, in his drab, echoing mansion, where Pedro (the reliably superb Alfredo Castro) has been summoned to take Porter’s pre-wedding portraits.

The groom is too busy to attend; the bride, Sara (Esther Vega Pérez Torres), turns out to be a mere child, swaddled in antique lace like an overdressed doll. Forbidden to let more natural light into the room — as clear a sign as any of things to come under Porter’s remote command — Pedro seeks sensualism in the murk, finally pulling Sara’s dress clear of her shoulders to gain the desired effect. It’s not the last time he’ll violate and degrade another body in pursuit of the right picture. Porter, pleased with the results, hires Pedro to stay on as a kind of delegated estate photographer, documenting his spread and the daily labor of his staff.

Yet when Pedro develops his own inappropriate fixation with Sara, and a secret intimate shoot with her becomes known to Porter, he is swiftly stripped of his status, and made a prisoner among the estate’s least savory workmen. He’s still required to snap for his supper, however, this time with his lens turned toward the white ranchers’ ruthless slaughter of the region’s native Selk’nam people — part of a genocide campaign, sanctioned by both the Chilean and Argentine governments, that left nearly 4,000 people dead over the course of a decade. (Porter, one suspects, is a fictional proxy for Julius Popper, the infamous Romanian-Argentine adventurer who was one of the genocide’s chief perpetrators.)

Ever the artist, Pedro frames these grotesque killings as meticulously as he would any landscape or bridal portrait. Castro’s naturally solemn demeanor as an actor is gnarled into frozen emotional agony, as the photographer’s instinctive aesthetic obsessiveness clashes with an escalating, soul-sick sense of complicity. No reminder is needed that the same pithy verb covers the operation of a camera and a firearm. His shots of slain bodies come to feel like a second attack — not because they’re gruesomely explicit, but because their visual refinement acts as a sort of pardon, adding insult to injury. Court himself largely avoids grisly imagery, though in this context it doesn’t feel like a dodge. The atrocities we know about but don’t see burden the film’s strange, queasy conscience, underlining how the brutal legacy of colonialism is so often sanitized and selectively presented.

“White on White” is thus the rare film that actively interrogates its own considerable visual beauty, inviting the viewer to consider what is being aestheticized and why. Gradually, each of the film’s gloriously sprawling frosted vistas, and each exquisitely cloistered interior, comes to seem a stand-in for so much thuggishly executed violence — to the point that its stunning image-making turns aptly oppressive. Instead, it’s stark, amplified sound design — the sensory property that evades Pedro’s camera — that evokes the visceral horrors of Porter’s leadership, with unpretty dread heard in every harsh, hobnailed footstep.

‘White on White’ Review: The Camera Lens Is an Instrument of Violence in a Haunting Colonialist Reflection

Reviewed online, Dec. 6, 2021. (In Venice, Busan film festivals.) Running time: 100 MIN. (Original title: "Blanco en blanco")

  • Production: (Chile-Spain-France-Germany) An Outsider Pictures/Mubi (in U.S.) release of an El Viaje Films, Quijote Films production. (World sales: Bendita Film Sales, Santa Cruz de Tenerife.) Producers: Jose Alayon, Marina Alberti, Andreas Banz, Eva Chillon, Giancarlo Nasi.
  • Crew: Director: Théo Court. Screenplay: Court, Samuel L. Delgado. Camera: Jose Angel Alayon. Editor: Manuel Munoz Rivas. Music: Jonay Armas.
  • With: Alfredo Castro, David Pantaleon, Lola Rubio, Lars Rudolph, Esther Vega, Alejandro Goic, Ignacio Ceruti. (Spanish, English dialogue)