'The Patriarch' ('Mahana'): Berlin Review

The Patriarch still 1 -Temuera Morrison - H 2016
Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
Once were sheep shearers.

For his first film in New Zealand in two decades, Lee Tamahori jumps back to Maori characters from the generation before his gritty breakout work, 'Once Were Warriors.'

Since bursting onto the scene in 1994 with the tough urban Maori drama Once Were Warriors, Lee Tamahori has had mixed fortunes making big-budget thrillers, including Die Another Day, the 2002 James Bond movie remembered mainly as the last wheeze of Pierce Brosnan on the MI6 payroll. The scene that kicks off the director's first film in his native New Zealand in over 20 years, The Patriarch, could almost be the low-tech response to a pre-titles 007 action intro. It involves two feuding indigenous families in a spontaneous multi-car road race, and you can imagine the helmer wishing he could blow up the single-lane bridge that ends the contest, sending a few of the boxy mid-century jalopies spinning through the air.

A lot of conflicting impulses are at play in this boldly old-fashioned family saga, set amid spectacular pastoral scenery and made with what seems like a heartfelt connection to this beautiful place and its people. For one thing, it's been a long time since anyone attempted to get an audience's pulse racing by pumping up the excitement and rivalry of a local sheep-shearing contest. And the intention to season the nostalgic period piece with the flavor of a Western is signaled first in the initial placement of key characters against the majestic landscape, then in a Cinema Paradiso-style scene in a movie house playing the original 3:10 to Yuma, and later with a pointed mention of the Don Siegel-directed Elvis Presley vehicle, Flaming Star.

If all that sounds like a lumpy stew, it is, though for most of the running time it's quite enjoyable as these things go. But the script by John Collee (Master and Commander, Happy Feet), based on a novel by Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera, has a bad habit of articulating every trace of subtext. In the final scenes in particular, the on-the-nose dialogue, ripe melodrama and preprogrammed emotional responses will test all but the most forgiving viewers.

Temuera Morrison, the breakout star of Once Were Warriors, is playing a very different kind of Maori patriarch this time around. Tamihana Mahana is a proud man who arrived with nothing decades earlier on the North Island's wild East Coast. He worked hard to clear the land for grazing and build the local church, carving a prominent position in the small township community, where Maori and Pakeha, or whites, co-exist at a more or less respectful distance. By the early 1960s, when the story takes place, Tamihana is a gruff grandfather, a religious man and a stern traditionalist, who gathers his large brood around him at the dinner table but turns authoritarian the minute the conversation takes a detour he doesn't like.

He shows a keen interest in his outspoken 14-year-old grandson Simeon (Akuhata Keefe), though it's based less on benevolent affection than the belief that all the boy's Pakeha book-learning has softened him. Tamihana assigns him endless farm chores yet deems him not man enough to participate when his parents and uncles go off to a shearing job on a white sheep farmer's property. Being left behind with his grandfather intensifies the friction between them. Following his parents' return, Simeon goes too far in testing the old man, whose violent outburst sparks a clash that ends with Simeon's family being banished from Tamihana's property.

As in Whale Rider, Ihimaera's esteem for strong Maori women is evident in the role of Tamihana's beekeeper wife, Ramona (Nancy Brunning), who dominates the lives of the extended family in much less demonstrative ways than her overbearing husband. She goes against Tamihana's wishes by giving Simeon's disowned family a rundown house that belongs to her on a neighboring hill. It's hinted at from early on that Ramona's past ties to Rupeni Poata (Jim Moriarty), the patriarch of the other dominant local Maori family, are at the heart of the deep-rooted hatred between the two clans.

When Simeon's father, Joshua (Regan Taylor), is injured in an accident during a torrential downpour, the boy steps up to secure his impoverished family's ongoing livelihood, challenging Tamihana's control over the shearing work. His coming of age is marked in other ways, too, among them a didactic scene in which he visits the town courthouse on a school excursion. Acting on impulse, Simeon uses the occasion to speak out against the judicial bias against Maori defendants, earning him the admiration of Rupeni. The young Mahana's attraction at school to a plucky Poata granddaughter (Yvonne Porter) feeds Simeon's interest in Ramona's deep personal history, ensuring that he plays a key role in bringing the inter-family frictions to light.

Those cliché-ridden climactic scenes are orchestrated without much finesse, their developments telegraphed far in advance and then elaborated by the writer and director with such mechanical notes of emotional uplift that they lack poignancy. Even the inclusion of a Haka war dance as the Poata men stand their ground underscores the general shortage of subtlety and psychological nuance.

On the plus side, it's refreshing to see a New Zealand drama that tells a Maori story built around neither integration issues, nor troubles with violence and addiction, or even folklore and spirituality, aspects limited largely to background texture here. The Mahanas are a working-class family striving to honor their traditions and move up in the world, but driven by simple self-respect, not greed or ambition. This is reflected especially in the conflicted figure of Tamihana, who wants the best for his family even if his way of achieving it is often misguided and he's blinded by stubbornness and animosity.

A director more capable than Tamahori of drawing fine-grained performances from his actors might have elevated this story above earnest soap opera. Morrison remains a forceful presence, even in a two-dimensional role, and Brunning plays up Ramona's silent fortitude with reasonable effectiveness. (The character's tribal chin tattoo adds to the sense of her quiet power.) But the acting is often stiff, and Keefe's inexperience shows in the uncertainty with which he straddles Simeon's adolescent immaturity with his blossoming convictions and backbone.

But Tamahori has cast the film with striking faces, conveying both the strength and unity of the characters and their physical capacity for hard, honest work. Some of the men — in particular Simeon's uncle Pani (Eds Eramiha) and the Poatas' star shearer (Te Kohe Tuhaka) — look like matinee idols with their slicked down hair and powerful physiques packed into farm gear or smart Sunday best.

Costumer Liz McGregor's designs reflect the sense of a family raised to take pride in appearances, and their collective presence within the broader community is well drawn. Likewise, their relationship to the land. Cinematographer Ginny Loane's crisp, handsome compositions of the verdant countryside with its rolling hills are among the movie's chief attractions. The Patriarch aims for classical screen storytelling, but the result, while entertaining for a time, becomes clunky and predictable, its sentimentality amplified by awkward incorporation of songs into the lush score.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production company: Jump Film
Cast: Temuera Morrison, Akuhata Keefe, Nancy Brunning, Jim Moriarty, Regan Taylor, Maria Walker, Eds Eramiha, Ngahuia Piripi, Yvonne Porter, Fraser Brown
Director: Lee Tamahori
Screenwriter: John Collee, based on Witi Ihimaera's novel,
Bilibasha: King of the Gypsies
Producers: Robin Scholes, Janine Dickins
Executive producers: Timothy White, Hone Kouka, Nik Beachman
Director of photography: Ginny Loane
Production designer: Mark Robins
Costume designer: Liz McGregor
Music: Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper, Tama Waipara
Editors: Michael Horton, Jonathan Woodford-Robinson
Casting: Matt Dwyer, Mike Dwyer
Sales: Wild Bunch

Not rated, 103 minutes