White Lies (Tuakiri Huna): Film Review

Whirimako Black
Cultural specificity and a quietly powerful central performance help overcome the missteps of Dana Rotberg's uneven drama.

New Zealand's foreign-language Oscar submission is a period drama about three women drawn together in conflict, based on a novella by "Whale Rider" author Witi Ihimaera.

The first feature made by Mexican writer-director Dana Rotberg in her adopted country, New Zealand, White Lies (Tuakiri Huna) is a solemn account of the battle of wills among three early-20th century women all scarred in profound ways by the ravages of colonialism. Anchored by the strong presence of Maori singer Whirimako Black in her first acting role, the film is based on a novella by Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera. Its languid pacing and stiffly theatrical structure are limitations, but the handsome production’s intimate exploration of motherhood in extremis will resonate for female audiences.

Chosen as New Zealand’s submission for consideration in the 2014 foreign-language Oscar category, White Lies mixes ethnographic examination of the country’s indigenous culture with a conventional drama about racial identity, heightened by use of symbolism that recalls Rotberg’s Mexican films, notably Angel of Fire.

Paraiti (Black) is a Maori herbalist and midwife, forbidden to practice her traditional healing arts under a 1907 government act designed to suppress the use of native medicine and other functions of tribal leaders within their communities. Having witnessed the killing of her family and fellow villagers by European settlers as a young woman, Paraiti lives a semi-nomadic existence in the wild Te Urewera region, caring for her people in strict secrecy.

On a rare visit to town, she is approached by Maraea (Rachel House), the haughty Maori housekeeper of a wealthy white woman, Rebecca Vickers (Antonia Prebble). Fearful of local gossip, Mrs. Vickers needs Paraiti’s help to terminate her advanced pregnancy before her husband returns from business in Europe. Paraiti initially refuses, but changes her mind following the death of a young Maori girl and her unborn baby at the hands of callous white hospital staff. “This is my way of restoring some justice,” she explains cryptically.

While the alabaster-skinned Mrs. Vickers is an imperious snob who makes no secret of her disdain for Paraiti and her “ancient ways,” Maraea proves an even greater adversary. Refusing to speak her native tongue and addressing the midwife only in English, she is a walking betrayal of her cultural heritage. But Paraiti responds to the other women's cold domineering with stoical calm, refusing to be rushed through her methodical procedures. She uncovers carefully hidden secrets in the house, at the same time revealing her own redemptive plan.

One of the weaknesses of Rotberg’s stripped-back screenplay is that by the time the big reveal comes, roughly an hour into the movie, most audiences will have guessed the unsettling truth hidden behind the shutters of the Vickers’ colonial mansion. That might not necessarily be a problem if the film didn’t remain somewhat underpowered, even after each woman and her agenda is viewed in a more telling light. Despite its prose origins, the material too often has the stilted feel of a stage piece.

While Rotberg is determined to avoid melodrama, her starchy dialogue gives a nagging archness to the English-language scenes. An interlude with a textbook harridan hospital matron (Elizabeth Hawthorne) is a particularly egregious example, but Rebecca’s early scenes are no better. Prebble overplays the chilly bitch to such an extent that when her character’s wounds are exposed it’s hard to feel much sympathy.

House does better, embodying the conflicts of a woman who has made unthinkable choices and is prepared to follow them through regardless of the cost. But the glue that holds the film together is Black’s Paraiti, a figure who serves to fortify the primal connection of mother and child, and of a people with their land. Her earthy intensity centers the drama with a commanding stillness, and the concluding notes of forgiveness and enduring tradition are conveyed with gentle poignancy.

Elsewhere, Rotberg leans a little heavily on the symbolism, from the taxidermy trophies and other signifiers of tamed savagery around the house, to the recurring pietà motif.

Cinematographer Alun Bollinger makes an atmospheric setting of Tracey Collins’ period production design, but the strongest visual assets are the majestic locations around Ruatahuna on New Zealand’s north island. John Psathas’ score makes delicate use of traditional Maori instruments.

Venue: Toronto Film Festival (Contemporary World Cinema)

Cast: Whirimako Black, Rachel House, Antonia Prebble, Nancy Brunning, Te Waimarie Kessell, Kohuorangi Tawhara, Elizabeth Hawthorne

Production company: South Pacific Pictures

Director-screenwriter: Dana Rotberg, based on the novella “Medicine Woman,” by Witi Ihimaera

Producers: John Barnett, Chris Hampson

Executive producer: Rosa Bosch

Director of photography: Alun Bollinger

Production & costume designer: Tracey Collins

Music: John Psathas

Editor: Paul Sutorius

Sales: The Film Sales Company

No rating, 96 minutes