White on White (“Blanco en Blanco”) – Buffalo Rising
At first glance, this is a familiar story in a familiar type of setting: ae border of the century; a world dominated by rude, disreputable, lascivious and uniformly immoral men, whose privileges include the use and abuse of the few available women, and whose duties include the murder of indigenous peoples – in this case the Selk tribe ‘ nam, inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia – ostensibly in pursuit of the “humanitarian” cause of civilizing the region and eliminating the native “savages”, while preparing the land for a higher purpose, vaguely signaled by driving fence posts into frozen ground.
If this were just the award-winning film by Chilean / Spanish director Theo Court (he won the Best Director award at the Venice Film Festival), we might appreciate – or tolerate – this dark story as an example of didactic cinema. post-colonial, a gruesome but essential take on the Anglo genocide (the invisible owner is a Mr. Porter).
It’s more than that, as we learn from the start, with the desolate arrival on the stage of Pedro (famous Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, whose rough, pensive face is a constant reminder of the moral dilemma), a photographer hired to document the upcoming wedding of Mr Porter and his future wife. Pedro is our eyes and ears – and, in an important sense, he, as an observer and a stranger, is us.
If the history of photography has revealed anything, it is that photographers, even “documentary” photographers, are not neutral figures who capture “reality”. Dorothea Lange, of “Migrant Mother” fame during the Great Depression, carefully selected which of the woman’s children would be in the photo and which would not, then arranged for the hand of the Migrant Mother lies thoughtfully on her cheek. Click on. (Among film photographers who have proven unable to resist involvement, think of LB Jeffries in “Rear Window”  and Thomas in “Blow-Up” ).
Pedro is at least as intrusive as Lange. Immediately in love with Mr. Porter’s fiancée, Sara (Esther Vega Pérez Torres), who must not be over 14 and speaks only 4 words in the film, he arranges his body awkwardly but provocatively on a table, then hand made Lange -a little cheek. Click on. A second shoot features nubile Sara in white underwear on a polar bear rug thrown over a lounge chair, positioned much like Manet’s outrageous Olympia in 1863 (although Sara is not naked and she does not look at the viewer). Pedro moistens his fingers with his saliva, then brushes them against the girl’s lips to get the right gloss ready to use. Mr. Porter will not be happy; there will be consequences.
Pedro’s photos are inappropriate; at times like these, he can’t help it. But it is not totally lacking in restraint. At an orgy on the wedding day (the groom is still away) in which ranch workers have access to native women, the photographer refuses to let go, seated broodingly in an apparent judgment of the impropriety of all this. If we are Pedro, the moral observer, we can take comfort in knowing that he has limits as well as desires.
This comfort will not last. Because he cannot leave the camp (boat trips are infrequent), Pedro is told that he must “contribute”, in this case by documenting the civilizing mission that is changing this part of the world. His growing involvement in the camp project (as it stands) is noted in a series of photographs he takes of various groups of armed men, and again when given his own rifle.
The cinematography of “White on White” (José Ángel Alayón is director of photography) is striking, in part because the landscape is vast and colorless. Patagonia’s visual isolation and dark palette give the impression of a story seen through a lens of the late 1800s, when photography was in its infancy. Court and Alayón use a large horizontal frame for most of the film, and a small square frame for the photographs Pedro takes, reminding us that his point of view is cropped, manipulated, that the “civilization” that occurs is that a small part of this world, and distorted at that.
The final photograph, which is taken entirely in the small square and which mimics those early photos celebrating the winners of the war, is disgusting and disappointing, especially since Pedro first appears as a precise middle-aged man. , professional and moderately dignified. , but with a soft spot for a young girl. His problem, and ours, goes beyond that. Much like the Stanford students who eagerly took on the roles of sadistic prison guards in Philip Zimbardo’s 1973 experience, Pedro is too easily caught up in his immediate surroundings, too eager to belong, to fit in, to participate even in activities that would seem patently wrong.
If Pedro is the face of weakness, the face of power belongs to the owner of the land. Appropriately, we never see it. The boss never appears. His power is absolute if not invisible, exercised in part by consenting subordinates: a nasty overseer, two men who punish Pedro for his erotic photographs, in a sense for making pornography. But Mr. Porter operates primarily through the environment, the space he commands: the endless snow-capped landscape surrounded by gray, menacing mountains. The proverbial frontier, and all that it implies, to which there is no escape. Not, at least, for Pedro – and not for us.
Date: 2019, US release June 30, 2021
White on white (“Blanco en Blanco”) Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Théo Court
With: Alfredo Castro, Ignacio Ceruti, Alejandro Goic, David Pantaleón, Esther Vega Pérez Torres, Lola Rubio, Lars Rudolph
Country: Spain, Chile, France, Germany
Languages: Spanish and English; Spanish with English subtitles
Other awards: 9 victories (including 3 at the Venice Film Festival 2019) and 12 nominations
Duration: 100 minutes
Availablity: To date, streaming only through Mubi (initial 30-day free trial period); probably available in the future via Netflix as are many Mubi films; for future availability, see JustWatch here.
See all Five Cent Cine reviews by 2 Film Critics