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Samoan-born filmmaker Tusi Tamasese finds eloquent voice with The Orator, a beautifully nuanced debut that sheds light on the time-steeped traditions and complex ceremonial rituals of his people.
It is the first film made in and about the South Pacific island nation of Samoa and while it succeeds on one level as an insider’s intricate cultural study, it is powered by a slow-burning underdog drama that canvasses weighty themes of family honor, courage and redemption.
Showy is not in Tamasese’s vocabulary and the New Zealand co-production ambles along at an observant pace, which may test the patience of those used to more bombastic fare. Since premiering in competition at the Venice International Film Festival, it has opened to acclaim in New Zealand and received a profile boost by being named that country’s first-ever foreign-language Academy Awards entry.
Shot on location on the Edenic-looking island of Upolu, The Orator introduces us to an unlikely hero in Saili (Fa’afiaula Sagote), a dirt-poor taro farmer living in a remote village with his wife Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj) and her 17-year-old daughter, Litia (Salamasina Mataia).
Husband and wife share a bountiful love, perhaps bolstered by their shared role as outsiders. Vaaiga was banished many years ago from her village for bringing disgrace upon her family. Saili, the son of a deceased village chief, is a dwarf, ostracized by the community and ridiculed for his attempts to follow in his father’s footsteps.
He is not a garrulous man but Sagote, a first-time actor who was working as a carpenter when approached for the part, is already a master of non-verbal communication. Quiet and watchful, he speaks volumes with his eyes.
Tamasese’s screenplay unfurls slowly with great precision, mirroring the dexterity and patience needed to weave the rattan mats that are such a prominent feature of island life. When Vaaiga’s brother Poto (Ioata Tanielu) arrives in the village bent on self-serving reconciliation, he is sent packing. Following a tragedy, Saili confronts the much larger man for a deeply moving high-noon climax, the participants armed only with emotionally charged words.
Working with New Zealand cinematographer Leon Narbey (Whale Rider), Tamasese has created the blueprint for a Samoan style, using wide angles and long takes to immerse the characters in their unique landscape. The cast of non-actors turn in low-key, sincere performances and there is clearly much symbolism at play, adding to the aura of folktale.
Venue: Brisbane International Film Festival
Production company: O Le Tulafale in association with New Zealand Film Commission
Cast:Fa’afiaula Sagote, Tausili Pushparaj, Salamasina Mataia, Ioata Tanielu
Director-screenwriter: Tusi Tamasese
Producer: Catherine Fitzgerald
Director of photography: Leon Narbey
Production designer: Rob Astley
Costume designer: Kirsty Cameron
Music: Tim Prebble
Editor: Simon Price
Sales: NZ Film
No MPAA rating, 110 minutes
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