'One Thousand Ropes': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Uelese Petaia in 'One Thousand Ropes'
A wounded soul laid bare.

Childbirth becomes a powerful vessel for renewal in this deeply felt drama about a Samoan former fighter atoning for the violence that divided his family and exiled him to solitude.

There's a scene early in Samoan New Zealander Tusi Tamasese's One Thousand Ropes in which the central character, a male midwife, assists a young woman in natural childbirth while a cartoon blares from a television in the room, depicting the story of a Polynesian demigod who snares the sun to slow its path, granting longer hours of daylight. That seemingly casual connection between life and mythology, between flesh-and-blood reality and its parallel spiritual dimensions, informs this meditative drama about the redemption of a man whose healing hands have also inflicted scars on his family.

World-premiering with a special slot in Berlin's Panorama section, the Samoan- and English-language film should find further exposure in festivals and programming forums with an interest in ethnographic drama. While Tamasese pushes the enigmatic solemnity to a fault, he sustains the subdued intensity with impressive control, building to a hopeful conclusion that resonates in the contained performance of Uelese Petaia as Maea, a former fighter once known as "The Lion." Maea has renounced violence for a simple, peaceful life that remains plagued by the heavy burdens of his past.

The opening images convey the extreme tenderness of Maea — a heavy-set, middle-aged man with a taciturn, unsmiling demeanor — as he swaddles a newborn infant and coaxes the unhappy young mother to bond with her child. He buries the placentas of his clients under a lemon tree, using the juice from its fruit to massage their stomachs during the late stages of pregnancy, suggesting a chain in which each new life feeds those that follow. And he resists the invitation of other practitioners to share his traditional healing techniques with modern childbirth professionals.

Only gradually — and indirectly — do we learn how different Maea was in the past. His abusive behavior toward his late wife brought about the estrangement of his family, their absence represented by faded squares in the paintwork where photographs once hung on the walls of his lonely home in Lower Hutt, Wellington. The culture of male violence is all around him, in a drunken neighbor constantly spoiling for a fight, or in the hostility between his colleagues at the bakery where he also works, preparing dough with the same gentle patience he brings to his midwifery.

Tamasese folds a minor-key ghost story into this portrait of regret, solitude and atonement via Seipua (Vaele Sima Urale), the taunting spirit of a dead woman clinging to life. A volatile presence with a forehead marked by bleeding wounds, she lurks in a corner of Maea's house. Haunting his dreams and threatening to invade the wombs of his patients in order to return to the living, she warns him not to underestimate her.

When Maea's youngest daughter, Ilisa (Frankie Adams), turns up pregnant and badly beaten by her boyfriend, she's unsettled by Seipua, but her father says the spirit keeps him company. Ilisa refuses to tell him the name of the baby's father. But even when he learns the man's whereabouts, Maea struggles against his own instincts, as well as his male peers in the community, urging him to dole out punishment. There's a stirring sense of humility in his efforts to defy the ingrained codes of violence and bring his granddaughter into a world of harmony and reconciliation.

From Leon Narbey's composed camerawork with its minimal, graceful movement, to the pensive scoring of Tim Prebble, incorporating sounds of nature, this slow-moving film keeps its conflicts veiled, making the audience work to access the characters' inner lives. It combines melancholy domestic drama with spiritual and supernatural elements, and while the latter could have been more robustly developed, a quiet power accumulates nonetheless. Maea's hands become a moving symbol of the old man's efforts to redefine his place in the world and seek forgiveness through his daughter.

Production company: Blueskin Films
Cast: Uelese Petaia, Frankie Adams, Vaele Sima Urale, Anapela Polataivao, Ene Petaia, Beulah Koale, Atina Lipa Patau, Lagi Farani
Director-screenwriter: Tusi Tamasese

Producer: Catherine Fitzgerald
Executive producers: Andrew Mackie, Richard Payten
Director of photography: Leon Narbey
Production designer: Shayne Radford
Costume designer: Nic Smillie
Music: Tim Prebble
Editor: Annie Collins
Casting: Tina Cleary, Miranda Rivers

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Sales: Mongrel Media

98 minutes.

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