Running Time: 103 mins
This film has been out in New Zealand and Australia for some time. It has just become the most successful New Zealand film ever at the Australian box office. Recently opened here in the USA, it is such a powerful film that not to review it would be a mistake.
One of the great mythologies of the Whangara people in New Zealand is that their leader Paikea came from Hawaii riding on the back of a whale. Ever since, the first-born male descendants of the Paikea clan have been the chiefs of the tribe. That is until now. The present chief is Koro (Paratene), but his son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) has rejected the tribal life and is pursuing an artistic career in Germany. As a younger man Porourangi fathered twins. His wife and baby boy died after childbirth. A girl Pai (Castle-Hughes) is the only direct descendant. Her grandparents have raised her in their tribal lands on the east coast of New Zealand. As much as he loves his granddaughter and she loves him, as skilled as she is in learning the traditions, Koro cannot break the patriarchal line and anoint her as the chief. He tries to find a boy worthy of Paikea's mantle. Pai knows, however, that she is meant to be the new chief and so, with a little help from her grandmother Flowers (Haughton) and some whales, she sets out to prove it.
Whale Rider is a mystical film.
For a film to be mystical it needs four elements: the story needs to connect with other spiritual texts which the director explores through the explicit use of symbols; the hero's search is presented primarily as a spiritual one and the viewer empathises with that quest; at a critical moment in the film, the camera draws back and places the viewer in an omnipotent position where he or she presides over the hero's journey; in the themes of sexuality, death and intimacy, and through the use of music, lighting and camera angels, the viewer accepts that there are more fluid boundaries between seen and unseen worlds, rasing questions for the viewer about his or her own meaning and purpose.
On every score Whale Rider is a mystical film. It is at once ancient in its mythology, and contemporary in the way it addresses the development of those ancient ideas. It presents the reality of other worlds through a very normal drama in this world: a kid who can't understand her grandfather.
This is not to say that the film is perfect. It lags in the middle section and, as wonderfully unaffected as the acting is from the principals, the same is not universally true from all the players. There are lighting problems and a few sound issues that distract the attention. But made for just US$5.7 million, it has more power and interest than most recent films made for ten times as much. And nothing takes away from this moving drama which is told with such humour and humanity.
This is the sort of film that Hollywood cannot make. On that score alone it deserves support. But be warned: it's a mystical film so it might just change your life.
Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the Director of the Australian Catholic Film Office.