The Orator

THE ORATOR. Starring Faafiaula Sagote, Tausili Pushparaj, and Salamasina Mataia. Directed by Tusi Tamasese. Rated  PG (Mild themes and coarse language). 106 min.

This film was selected for competition in the New Horizons section of the 2011 Venice International Film Festival, and is the first feature film made entirely in Samoa to be released. It won a Special Mention award at the festival, and must be on track to represent New Zealand in the Foreign Language Film category at the 2012 Academy Awards.

The movie, financed by the New Zealand Film Commission, tells the story of a solitary Samoan farmer, Saili (Fiaafiaula Sagote), who lives with his wife, Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj) and her daughter, Litia (Salamasina Mataia), in an isolated rural village in Samoa. His wife has been banished from her ancestral village for behaviour which brought it shame, Saili has been denied his father’s title and has no protection, and there are threats to his family from people in his village and those in his wife’s village. Also, Litia’s attractiveness has got her into trouble with the men in Saili’s village. All these factors push him to assert himself, speak up, and defend all that he values. It is a family drama that highlights the traditional aspects of Samoan culture, but also some of the conflicts associated with contemporary life in Samoa.

The film has a lyrical quality to it. It is slow, almost languid in pace, but beautiful to experience and to watch. Its feeling of intimacy is enhanced by the splendour of the environment in which the drama takes place. It represents an authentic statement of life in Samoa, and it engagingly shows the impact of hierarchy in village life. The people in it are pushed to face large, life issues, and Saili overcomes his natural reluctance to assert himself to do what he knows is right. The film is morally uplifting, dramatically compelling, and the performances of all those in the movie are excellent. The performance of Sagote as Vaaiga’s silent husband, who is a disabled dwarf, is particularly good. It would have been so easy for the film and its story-line to look maudlin and contrived, but the family interactions between Saili, Vaaiga and Litia are powerfully moving.

The film’s cinematography by Leon Narbey, who gave us “Whale Rider” (2002) is excellent. Narbey conveys his visual experiences evocatively in ways that turn scenes on the Island into coloured paintings. Cultural events depicted in the film, such as prayer-time and atonement, are fascinating, but the film is far more than one that is anthropological in its impact. As Saili fights to defend his honour with courage and determination, the film offers a moving, human love story of a misunderstood man, under-estimated by those around him, even by those whom he loves.

The slowness of the movie is a patient exploration of the meaning of life for those on the Island. While the story-line is relatively simple (but not without moments of wonderful inspiration), the various themes of the film, including love, honour, forgiveness and atonement, are woven subtly together, so that one never loses the sense of cohesion. The title of the movie draws it relevance from the final scenes of the film, which show Saili defending his right to bury his own wife on his land, and his defence shows the skill and passion of an experienced orator. This is not someone the villagers have ever seen before, even Litia, and his performance as the Orator earns him their respect.

This is a rhythmic, beautiful film, which conveys unique insights into a rich and appealing culture. As a first Samoan feature film, the Samoan film industry is to be congratulated. For authenticity alone, the movie is one that is extraordinary to experience.

Peter W. Sheehan is associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film and Broadcasting.

Transmission Films.

Out 17 November, 2011.

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