On the surface, this is a familiar story in a familiar type of setting: a remote, forbidding, late-19th century frontier; a world dominated by boorish, unsavory, lascivious and uniformly immoral men, whose privileges include using and abusing the few available women, and whose duties include the killing of indigenous people—in this case the Selk’nam tribe, inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, Patagonia—ostensibly in the pursuit of the “humanitarian” cause of civilizing the area and eliminating the native “savages,” while preparing the land for some higher purpose, vaguely signaled by the sinking of fence posts into the frozen earth.
If that were all to Chilean/Spanish director Théo Court’s award-winning film (he won Best Director at the Venice Film Festival), we could appreciate—or tolerate—this bleak tale as an example of didactic, post-colonial cinema, a horrific but essential take on Anglo genocide (the unseen owner is a Mr. Porter).
It’s more than that, as we learn from the beginning, with the arrival on the desolate scene of Pedro (noted Chilean actor Alfredo Castro, whose rough, pensive face is a constant reminder of moral dilemma), a photographer hired to document the upcoming wedding of Mr. Porter and his bride-to-be. Pedro is our eyes and ears—and, in an important sense, he, as the observer and outsider, 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” Great-Depression-Era fame, carefully selected which of the woman’s children would be in the photo and which would not, then arranged for Migrant Mother’s hand to rest thoughtfully on her cheek. Click. (Among the filmic photographers who proved unable to resist involvement, consider L.B. Jeffries in “Rear Window”  and Thomas in “Blow-Up” ).
Pedro is at least as intrusive as Lange. Immediately smitten with Mr. Porter’s fiancée Sara (Esther Vega Pérez Torres), who can’t be older than 14 and speaks only 4 words in the film, he arranges her body awkwardly yet provocatively over a table, then does the Lange hand-on-cheek bit. Click. A second session features the nubile Sara in her white underwear on a white bear rug thrown over a chaise lounge, positioned much like Manet’s then-scandalous 1863 Olympia (though Sara is not naked and she’s not staring at the viewer). Pedro moistens his fingers with his saliva, then brushes them against the girl’s lips to achieve just the right photo-ready gloss. Mr. Porter will not be happy; there will be consequences.
Pedro’s photos are inappropriate; in those moments, he can’t help himself. But he is not entirely lacking in restraint. During a wedding-day orgy (the groom still a no-show) in which the ranch’s employees are granted access to the native women, the photographer refuses to indulge, sitting glumly in apparent judgment of the impropriety of it all. If we are Pedro, the moral observer, we can take some comfort in knowing he has limits as well as desires.
That comfort won’t last. Because he can’t leave the camp (boats out are infrequent), Pedro is told he must “contribute,” in this case by documenting the civilizing mission that is changing this part of the world. His deepening involvement in the camp’s project (such as it is) is signaled in a series of photographs he takes of various groups of men with guns, and again when he is 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. The visual isolation of Patagonia and the 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 employ a wide, horizontal frame for most of the film, and a small square frame for the photographs Pedro takes, reminding us that his view is a cropped, manipulated one, that the “civilization” that is occurring is but a small part of this world, and a distorted one at that.
The final photograph, the taking of which is all within the small square and which mimics those early photos celebrating the victors of war, is disgusting—and disappointing, especially given that Pedro first appears as a precise, professional, moderately dignified middle-aged man, albeit with a weakness for a young girl. His problem, and ours, goes beyond that. Not unlike the Stanford students who eagerly took on the roles of sadistic prison guards in Philip Zimbardo’s 1973 experiment, Pedro is all too easily caught up in his immediate environment, all too willing to belong, to fit in, to participate—even in activities that would seem obviously wrong.
If Pedro’s 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 invisible, exercised in part through willing subordinates: a nasty overseer, two men who punish Pedro for his erotic photographs, in a sense for the making of pornography. But Mr. Porter operates mainly through the environment, the space he commands: the endless snow-covered landscape enclosed by grey, forbidding mountains. The proverbial frontier, and all it implies, from which there is no escape. Not, at least, for Pedro—and not for us.
Date: 2019, released in USA June 30, 2021
White on White (“Blanco en Blanco”) Stars: 3 (out of 4)
Director: Théo Court
Starring: Alfredo Castro, Ignacio Ceruti, Alejandro Goic, David Pantaleón, Esther Vega Pérez Torres, Lola Rubio, Lars Rudolph
Countries: Spain, Chile, France, Germany
Languages: Spanish and English; Spanish subtitled in English
Other Awards: 9 wins (including 3 at the 2019 Venice Film Festival) and 12 nominations
Runtime: 100 minutes
Availability: To date, streaming only through Mubi (initial 30-day free trial period); likely available in future via Netflix as are many Mubi films; for future availability, see JustWatch here.