Film Reviews: Wednesday, June 25, 2003
Whale Rider\r\nStarring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Rawiri Paratene. Written and directed by Niki Caro, based on Witi Ihimaera’s novella. Rated PG-13.\r\n
Breaking the Waves

A little girl embodies the spirit of her Maori tribe in Whale Rider.


This weekend, the Charlie’s Angels sequel, with its big stars and its rah-rah celebration of Girl Power, sends the Hollywood hype machine into overdrive. What a travesty! The original didn’t have a clue about Girl Power (or much of a clue about anything else, for that matter), and I wouldn’t take odds on the sequel finding one. It’s probably a good thing that we live in a culture where we can take young, strong women more or less for granted. The fact remains, though, that the best movies about Girl Power these days come from cultures where girls have it much tougher than the ones cruising the local mall do. Patricia Cardoso’s Real Women Have Curves, Karen Moncrieff’s Blue Car, and Gurinder Chadha’s Bend It Like Beckham acknowledge the economic barriers that keep girls from reaching their potential and the entrenched social mores that tell them that they shouldn’t dare to dream. These movies know how things really are, and they know that waving the Girl Power banner isn’t as compelling as the fight to win it.

Whale Rider deserves to stand with the real Girl Power films, and it’s the movie you should be seeking out this week. It’s based on a novella by Witi Ihimaera, the first writer of Maori descent to be widely acclaimed outside New Zealand. Writer-director Niki Caro removes Ihimaera’s environmentalist exhortations, intelligently recognizing that the natural beauty of her location conveys the author’s message forcefully enough. (The movie was shot on New Zealand’s eastern tip in the author’s hometown of Whangara, where the book is set.) With her close observation of religious rites and daily rituals, she also gives the movie an everyday realism (until the end — more on that later) that contrasts sharply with the scriptural tone of the book’s messianic story about a child born to lead the people. This is crucial; instead of having a magical being as our main character, we have a little girl like many others, and this makes the story much easier to relate to.

It begins with the girl’s birth and the simultaneous death of her mother and twin brother. Her grieving father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis, taking a break from playing Arabs and Latinos in Hollywood movies) gives her a boy’s name, Paikea, after the legendary warrior who rode in from the sea on a whale’s beak to found the Maori people. Years later, little Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is being raised by her grandfather Koro (Rawiri Paratene), the tribal chief descended from a centuries-old line of chiefs, who remains disappointed that his granddaughter lived while his grandson died. Only a firstborn son can inherit the title, and since Porourangi has neither a son nor any interest in being chief himself, Koro sets up a school for the firstborn sons of Whangara’s other families to see which of them is fit to lead. His belief in the tradition blinds him to the fact that Pai, who shares his devotion to their ancestry, is a far better candidate than any of his pupils.

The movie has an ambience and viewpoint that’s distinct from the only other Maori film with wide exposure in this country, Lee Tamahori’s 1995 domestic tragedy Once Were Warriors, but both movies take in the same emotionally bleak landscape. Though Caro is primarily concerned with the girl’s predicament, she also has an excellent handle on the way this dynastic, patriarchal society crushes its men. Porourangi has to work in Europe as an artist to come into his own. His younger brother (Grant Roa), with no incentive to succeed as the second son, has degenerated from a trim fighting champion into a fat, directionless lump. When Pai defeats one of Koro’s best pupils at the spear-like weapon called the taiaha, the losing boy is promptly thrown out of school. Koro’s masculine ideal is so severe that no one can live up to it. He’s monstrous in many ways, but Paratene’s performance shows us the chief’s enormous pride and his despair at being unable to find an heir.

The film proceeds in a realistic vein until its climax, when a mystical event changes things. It’s rather similar to the end of Breaking the Waves, but even though this film emerges as far superior to Lars von Trier’s overrated piece of kitsch, it doesn’t pull off the miracle all that successfully. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of ending the film with a bit of transcendence — the unfamiliarity of the Maori culture makes the mythic ending easier to digest. Still, you can’t help feeling as if Caro just waved a magic wand and wished away thousands of years of prejudice to make everything all right.

Even so, the human dimension of Whale Rider is made palpable by the 11-year-old Castle-Hughes, whose soft luminescence conceals an intelligence and resiliency. Her presence, and the filmmaker’s simple but deep understanding of the story, give this film the mysterious, authentically uplifting power of a fable. Eat your hearts out, Charlie’s Angels.

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