‘Sorcery’ Review: A Sinister and Satisfying Fable of Anti-Colonial Revenge in 19th-Century Chile

‘Sorcery’ Review: A Sinister and Satisfying Fable of Anti-Colonial Revenge in 19th-Century Chile

January 30, 2023

From a distance, like on a zoomed-out map, the South Pacific island of Chiloé looks almost like a peninsula. It nestles cosily into the embrace of the Chilean coastline, separated only by a narrow strait from the overhanging landmass. But as anyone who has been there can tell you, it has an earthy atmosphere very much its own: with its temperate, damp climate, verdant forests and misty fields, Chiloé feels ancient, folkloric and full of hidden mystery. It makes it the perfect setting for Chilean filmmaker Christopher Murray’s “Sorcery,” a meditative tale of anticolonial vengeance that has its basis in fascinating true events in Chilote history, but that wears the skin of a dark fairytale. 

It is 1880 on the island, and 13-year-old Rosa (a watchful, deep performance from Valentina Véliz Caileo) is prepping a meal for her employers, a family of devoutly Christian German settlers. Rosa, who has learned to speak German, comes from an indigenous Huilliche background, but has converted to Christianity — the better, it seems, to make herself acceptable to the newly arrived overclass. Still, when sheep farmer patriarch Stefan (Sebastian Hülk) says grace, he waits for her to leave the room. Rosa prays along with the settler family, but out of their sight: We are all equal in the eyes of the Lord, but some are more equal than others. 

A chilling occurrence interrupts Rosa’s prayer. Heralded by the restless, scraping strings of Leonardo Heiblum’s excellent, uneasy, if a little over-stressed score, all of Stefan’s sheep out in the fields are dead or dying. Rosa finds a mysterious braid of twisted twigs and vines wrapped around one of the gasping animals, but when her father (Francisco Nuñez) comes to investigate, Stefan immediately jumps to conclusion that it is he who is responsible. Or perhaps he doesn’t much care which “Indian” did it: Any will do as a scapegoat. In front of Rosa’s horrified eyes, deaf to her begging, Stefan sets his dogs on the man, holding Rosa away while they tear into him. Later, as a further cruelty, Stefan’s wife Agnes (Annick Durán) gently but firmly refuses to allow Rosa’s forlorn handmade cross to mark her father’s grave. He wasn’t Christian. 

Burning with rage, which seems all the more ferocious because of Caileo’s ruthlessly restrained, banked-down performance, Rosa seeks justice first from the feckless Mayor Acevedo (Daniel Muñoz), who is so in thrall to the newcomers he refuses to do anything and advises Rosa to follow suit. She then goes to the church, but is rebuffed by the local priest as well. Her appeal rejected by both Church and State, Rosa shelters with Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), a gruff local Huilliche who grudgingly takes her in. Once Rosa learns that Mateo heads a local branch of an indigenous resistance group known as La Recta Provincia (The Righteous Province), who are using their knowledge of strange native magic to wage a covert campaign of attrition against the invaders, her desire for justice gradually calcifies into a single-minded quest for revenge, first indicated to the settlers and the Chilean authorities alike when Stefan and Agnes’ two young children go missing. 

There are shades of “True Grit” in this story of determined young girl seeking the counsel and help of a grizzled elder in the commission of an act of vengeance. And where Mattie Ross discovered an aptitude for Rooster Cogburn’s saddle-weary cowboy lifestyle, Rosa also bonds with Mateo — only it’s her nascent witchcraft powers, fostered by Mateo’s adviser and spellcaster Aurora (Neddiel Muñoz Millalonco), that draw the two of them together. But even though it deals in the supernatural, “Sorcery” remains deeply rooted in the natural world, thanks in large part to María Secco’s mid-toned, earthen photography, barely accented by a few subtle CG touches.

The conduits of magic here are nothing flashy: woven sticks, local herbs and everyday living creatures, like the birds that wheel in circles in the air above affected households, giving them a sinister halo. Even the most inherently horrific detailing, like the hides worn during certain rituals that turn out to be made of human skin, is less grotesque, indeed almost prosaic, in this hazily suspended middle-world where magic is practical and only to be feared for its tendency toward a very tit-for-tat type of balance.

“Sorcery” might almost be considered the third part of a trilogy, given Murray’s previous two films: “Manuel de Ribera” and Venice competition title “The Blind Christ” were also glowering fables about power and oppression set deep in the untamed rural landscapes of his native country. This iteration is arguably his most complete, but it does suffer a little from following these unshaded character archetypes through such a recognisably structured narrative. From Stefan’s pious hypocrisy to Aurora’s cryptic incantations, to Acevedo — standing for the mainland Chileans who nominally run the municipality — being little more than a craven, self-interested collaborator, each of the players is built more around what they represent than who they really are, so there cannot be a lot in the way of surprise as to how they behave. 

And while the atmospherics are strong, Murray’s screenplay, co-written with Pablo Paredes, is somewhat tamed to the demands of the revenge-movie genre, and does not venture too far into the truly uncanny territory that beckons from just beyond the edges of its tightly woven allegory. But if there is a sort of wishful-thinking satisfaction to be gained from imagining a past in which the very indigenous traditions that that were gradually wiped off the map by colonialism could have somehow been successfully weaponised against those invading forces, it doesn’t ring quite true. Perhaps because it isn’t. The truth of the 1880 trial of La Recta Provincia — perhaps the last witchcraft trial that took place anywhere in the world — is far stranger than even a fiction as authentically detailed as “Sorcery” can hint at.

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