SORCERY (Sydney FF 2023) – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Inviting us into the cold, damp 19th century world of Chile’s Chiloé Archipelago through the eyes of thirteen-year-old Rosa (Valentina Véliz), Christopher Murray’s Sorcery is a dark, enthralling coming-of-age tale of witchcraft, colonialism and self-discovery. Inspired by a true story, the film begins with the gruesome death of Rosa’s beloved father when the German owner of the house where she works as a servant sets his vicious dogs on the man, blaming indigenous magic for the death of his sheep. Deeply traumatized by the experience, the Christian Rosa reconsiders her faith as she is taken under the wing of a number of indigenous elders, setting her on a fraught path through her grief towards something much bigger than herself.

Beautifully shot by DOP María Secco, the sense of isolation and brutality that marks life on the island is something that we can palpably sense as both we and Rosa learn just how unforgiving the impact of colonialism is on the island’s indigenous community. A hard worker and eager to learn, Rosa is marked very much by her actions – despite her age, she is a young woman who does things, and her strength of character is paralleled directly with her determination and agency. This balances beautifully with the relationships she forges with her indigenous elders, crafting an interpersonal dynamic that lies in sharp contrast with the more bureaucratic world of not just the island’s colonial inhabitants, but its ambitious Chilean mayor and his pregnant wife also.

Véliz’s performance clearly lies at the heart of the film, and Rosa’s desire for revenge forms a core part of Sorcery’s narrative dynamic; you’d be hard pressed to connect with this film if you weren’t moved on some level by Véliz’s excellent but often low-key performance. But to describe Sorcery as a vengeance tale feels crudely reductive, and misses so much of what it is about this film that pivots around that narrative core. This film is so much more, a world building exercise that makes a belief in magic seem almost second nature.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).