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Sorcery (Brujería)

Indigenous girl seeking revenge for her father's brutal assassination turns to black magic, in this hybrid blend of historical drama and fantasy from Chile - in cinemas Friday, June 14th

The action takes place in the middle of the 19th century on the remote Chiloe Island, located in Southern Chile. Thirteen-year-old Rosa (Valentina Veliz Caileo) belongs to the Huilliche indigenous people, but she has long forsaken her heritage. She speaks Spanish and German, has converted to Christianity, and works for a family of German settlers. One day, she witnesses her father being murdered by her boss Stefan (Sebastian Huelk) because he blamed him for the mysterious death of his sheep herd (without any evidence).

Rosa decides to seek justice at all costs, but her plea for help falls into deaf ears. The local mayor Acevedo (Daniel Munoz) refuses to take action because “dogs don’t go to jail”, in reference to the two animals that Stefan set on Rosa’s father in order to kill him. Elderly shaman Mateo (Daniel Antivilo) offers the despondent and increasingly indignant girl shelter and lore. He is the leader of the resistance group La Recta Provincia (a real-life organisation that’s now extinct), who teaches her “witchcraft” (a racist label that the Huilliche understandably reject). She leverages her newly found spiritual knowledge for very earthly purposes. Tragedy soon befalls Stefan’s family, and what ensues is a vaguely contrived tale of indigenous tradition versus colonialism, supernatural versus mortal, dignity versus moral torpitude. Rosa and her people embody the most noble values, while the Europeans represent ruthlessness and depravity.

This is a movie packed with symbolisms intended to celebrate indigenous culture. It boasts a touch of fantasy that deviates from historicity. Ultimately, it feels more like a fable than a record of Huilliche culture. None of the characters speaks the indigenous language (Huilliche is now a moribund tongue, but it was still widely spoken two centuries ago), and there is limited insight into what traditions and beliefs. We learn that the indigenous people believed that the dead go to sea (instead of Heaven), but little beyond that. Animals (specially dogs and birds) play a prominent role, but I’m not sure of their individual significance, Death (of people and animals) mandate the fate of the closely-knit an yet turbulent community. Colonisers threaten the octotonous people with extinction, and it is the animals that come to their rescue. A horrific body swap caters for the punishment that Stefan rightly deserved.

Water plays a prominent role. The entire story takes place on an island surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, with ferocious rivers and estuaries offering the possibility of instant redemption or sudden death. It rains heavily and incessantly, and the weather is invariably misty and damp. Water seeps through the roofs, the walls, and the protuberant roots of the towering, ancient trees. Such fluidity provides the film with a comforting sense of confinement. It’s as if characters inhabited a giant womb, an ecosystem that offers nurture and protection, while also imprisoning them. The gritty, earthen cinematography provides the final touch of reverie, a palpable detachment from the mundane.

The outcome is a charming fable of indigenous revenge, however one that’s hardly rooted on Chilean soil. The magic conduits and the signifiers are so universal that this fantastic story could have taken place pretty much anywhere on the planet. Beautiful, however a little banal.

Sorcery showed at the 22nd Transylvania International Film Festival, in Cluj Napoca, when this piece was originally written. DMovies was live at the event for the second year. In cinemas on Friday, June 14th (2024)

By Victor Fraga - 12-06-2023

Victor Fraga is a Brazilian born and London-based journalist and filmmaker with more than 20 years of involvement in the cinema industry and beyond. He is an LGBT writer, and describes himself as a di...

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