DramaFilmReview

Sorcery

David Cunningham

Writers Christopher Murray and Pablo Paredes

Director Christopher Murray

A nineteenth-century colonial setting allows writer/director Christopher Murray to take an unusual approach to a tale of revenge / quest for identity in Sorcery.

Although thirteen-year-old Rosa (Valentina Véliz Caileo) and her father are indigenous to the remote Chilean island of Chiloé they have embraced the customs and Christian beliefs of the German colonisers and work for the settlers, farming sheep. However, they become collateral damage in an ongoing conflict between the settlers and Recta Provincia (The Righteous Province) a group of indigenous locals seeking to repel the colonisers.

The farmer’s herd of sheep are found dead, and a fetish charm on the site suggests witchcraft may be the cause. The farmer demands Rosa name the culprits and, when her father intervenes, he is killed by the settler’s savage dogs. Both church and state deny Rosa justice. The local Mayor is too aggrieved at being posted to such a remote backwater to stir himself to take action. The priest demonstrates to Rosa she must look to herself for justice and arranges for her to lodge with Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), an island elder.

A suicide attempt by Rosa convinces Mateo she will never be content until her father’s death is avenged and he arranges for an unusual but apt punishment for the murderous farmer. Rosa, however, begins to suspect she has an affinity for witchcraft and her actions push the settlement into a state of open conflict with the authorities brutally repressing dissent.

Few aspects of Sorcery conform to expected norms. Dogs feature regularly but instead of the faithful and protective guardians one might expect are vicious and murderous or objects of supernatural revenge. The witchcraft depicted in the film is earthy and Pagan rather than sexy. At one point Mateo literally hugs a tree. The rituals are unflinchingly depicted including the use of skin from deceased humans.

One tends to think of Chile as warm and sunny, but the film shows a region so cold the breath of the characters steams in the air. The atmosphere is not so much grim as weary. The colours are washed-out. The beach is full of shale, the sea is grey, and the sun is permanently obscured by clouds or drizzling rain. Some scenes look like they might have been filmed in Blackpool on a bank holiday.

The revenge thriller aspects of the film are muted. The brutal farmer and feckless mayor are more symbolic of the corrosive effect of colonisation than satisfying villains whose comeuppance would enable Rosa to achieve catharsis. Sorcery works best, therefore, as a journey of discovery for Rosa.

As is common with people subject to colonisation Rosa loses her identity – the farmer’s wife brutally makes clear Rosa is no longer regarded as a Christian and denies her the comfort of marking her father’s grave with a cross. Rosa’s embracing witchcraft, whilst framed in pagan rituals, has a seductive aspect as if she risks submitting to evil. She remarks to Mateo when she looked into the source of witchcraft it looked back.

A nuanced performance from Valentina Véliz Caileo develops Rosa from one of the vengeance -obsessed Furies to a true leader seeking conciliation as much as justice. Rather than see Recta Provincia as responsible for the events which led to the death of her father Rosa perceives the true cause to be the colonisation of the island. Her initial approach to the settlers as a member of Recta Provincia is conciliatory – an offer to treat the mayor’s wife, whose life is in danger due to a difficult childbirth. Only when the mayor reneges on his part of the deal does she resort to supernatural threats.

The reflective approach taken by director Christopher Murray prevents Sorcery from being a fully satisfying revenge thriller but, along with a strong central performance, the style ensures the film is an engrossing study of the development of a damaged character with insight into a dark alternative lifestyle.

Sorcery is released in cinemas on 14 June by Sovereign Films.

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Dark alternative life

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