Christopher Murray Casts A Grim But Beautiful Revenge Spell With A Lot On Its Mind [Sundance]

Feb 10, 2023

Not quite a traditional horror film, not quite a coming-of-age drama, and not quite a true supernatural fable, Christopher Murray’s “Sorcery” is a difficult film to categorize. It’s dark, grim, and angry, like a revenge horror film. There are moments of magic in a 19th-century setting that bring a sort of fairy tale atmosphere to mind. And yes, this is a film about a young girl’s journey of self-discovery. But “Sorcery” is also inspired by real, unsettling historical facts about how a beautiful, indigenous tradition was uprooted by European colonialism. All that to say, “Sorcery” is a film with quite a few themes, maybe too many, but somehow, thanks to an incredible lead performance, it all coalesces into a beautiful, haunting story of one person’s quest for justice and the lengths she’ll go to find it. 
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“Sorcery” takes place in the late 19th Century and follows the story of a teenage girl, Rosa (Valentina Véliz Caileo), who, alongside her father, serves as a housekeeper for a German colonist family. There, she learns the ways of Christianity and feels a sense of belonging with these foreigners and their customs. However, when her father is unceremoniously murdered by the family for a crime he didn’t commit, Rosa finds herself renouncing her Christian faith and embracing her Indigenous heritage among a group of accused witches. With this group, led by Mateo (Daniel Antivilo), the young girl begins a quest of revenge that not only aims to bring down the German family who caused her harm but the entire Christian colonist influence that is drowning out the old customs of her Huilliche people.
Needless to say, filmmaker Murray (who co-wrote the script alongside Pablo Paredes) has a lot on his mind with “Sorcery.” This is a coming-of-age film about female empowerment, as young Rosa discovers her own inner strength and ability to enact justice. There is also an anti-colonialism message that is dripping with venom. And finally, there is the whole witch hunt aspect, which highlights how Indigenous people, throughout history, have found their customs, belief systems, and traditions villainized by foreigners. And while the film does start to feel a bit unfocused as the plot expands and the ideas and themes begin to stack up, the central performance from Véliz Caileo consistently anchors the film by reminding audiences that all of this chaos and upheaval in the community is due to one girl’s quest for justice. 
Newcomer Véliz Caileo is a revelation in her role as Rosa. In her understated performance, you can feel the heartbreak, the seething anger, and the growing confidence with just her quiet line delivery and subtle facial expressions. She isn’t raving in the streets, yelling and crying at anyone she encounters. It’s much a more subdued performance, and thus, in the context of Murray’s filmmaking style, much more effective. 
Murray’s film could easily be lumped into the folk horror genre based solely on its plot, but this isn’t some gore-heavy Midnight Movie. “Sorcery” shares more with Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” than it does anything else. Murray’s feature is impeccably shot, with incredible production design. With its desaturated colors and natural lighting, the film fully immerses you in 19th-century Chile, and there is so much beauty in each frame. 
Of course, even though there is beauty in “Sorcery,” that doesn’t mean Murray is afraid to highlight the more terrifying aspects of his horror film. The opening scene of the film, though it is gracious enough to obscure most of the violence, is one of the most brutal, emotional moments of the entire feature. And throughout the rest of the running time, the filmmaker peppers in scenes to remind audiences that there is perhaps something supernatural and frightening going on. I mean, the film is called “Sorcery,” isn’t it? But even still, when the film creeps under your skin and disturbs you in surprising ways, there isn’t a reliance on gore or jump scares at all. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find really any blood in the film, as the horror is mostly psychological and atmospherical.
By the film’s end, you might be surprised by the moments of hope and optimism which help offer respite from the bleakness. Without these bits, “Sorcery” could easily fall into the trap of nihilism and anger that muddles the message Murray is attempting to convey. On the surface, “Sorcery” is a revenge film about a girl’s desire for vengeance, but below the surface is a gorgeous showcase of misunderstood Indigenous traditions and beliefs. [B+]
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