Whale Rider (New Market, 2003)

Whale Rider is such a balanced mix of Maori culture and themes appealing to modern Western sensibilities that one would be tempted to call it canny, if it wasn't so sincere.

The film takes a culturally specific plot -- the choice by the Maori ancestors of a new chief who will re-awaken the tribe to its lost strength and identity -- and recasts it as the battle by a child to be accepted by a father figure for whom her best is never good enough.

These themes are so powerful that all the movie needs to succeed is to stand out of its own way: to avoid sentimentality, over-simplification of complex issues, or hit-you-over-the-head politics. Thankfully, it does.

Buoyed by strong acting and a simple, honest script by Witi Ihimaera and director Niki Caro, Whale Rider is one of the most moving films I've seen in a while. The white-haired white man next to me was weeping by the end. So was the rest of the theatre. So, I confess, was I. And every tear was earned, not jerked out by an overbearing score or a blubbering onscreen confession of childhood trauma and low self-esteem.

Kono, played with alternating pettiness and grandeur by Rawiri Paratene, is the old chief of a modern Maori tribe. Dismayed by his tribe's abandonment of the old ways for the lure of modernity, he becomes convinced that one of his descendants will be the savior of the tribe. His oldest son Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) disappoints him by leaving New Zealand to become an artist, and his younger son is more interested in lounging with a beer than leading the tribe.

When Porourangi's wife gives birth to twins, Kono is certain that the male twin must be the One. But the mother dies in childbirth, and so does her son. Porourangi retaliates against Kono's coldhearted insistence that he remarry and try again for a son by naming the girl Pai after Pai Kea, the most revered mythic hero of the Maoris, a man who rode a whale from the land of the ancients to New Zealand. Then Porourangi goes off to Europe, leaving Pai in the care of her grandparents.

Though Kono holds a grudge against her for not being the boy savior he wanted, they grow close nonetheless. But Kono is still determined to find a successor, so he decides to gather together the unpromising and unenthusiastic boys of the tribe, teach them the ancient rituals, and eventually perform a test which will select the new chief from their ranks.

Pai, the only child in the tribe who actually wants to be chief, longs to join Kono's classes. But not only must a chief be male, but the very presence of a female at the sacred teaching space profanes it. Kono not only forbids her from joining, watching, or learning on her own, but becomes so angry her attempts to participate that he breaks off his relationship with her, his own granddaughter, who loves him and understands him and resembles him as no one else does.

As if that's going to stop her.

But this is not, or not only, a modern feminist parable, but a tale from an older tradition. Pai is the chosen one with a flaw of birth. This story has been told in India, about the low-caste archer Eklavya who was forbidden to attend classes but still learned to shoot better than the tutored princes. Similar stories have been told across the world, of heroes who are barred from taking their rightful place because they're of the wrong caste, or color, or gender. Whether the moral is that people should know their place, or that a valiant soul should be acknowledged in any body, varies from story to story.

Pai is played by the remarkable Keisha Castle-Hughes, and it's apparent from one glance into her ocean-deep eyes that that she is the One. Though the film doesn't make a definitive statement as to whether the spirits of the ancestors are real as spirits, or whether they are real as beliefs which shape people's actions, they are clearly a force, and they have clearly chosen Pai.

This isn't a matter of miracles clustering about her, but that she alone has the necessary leadership, determination, love for the culture, and skill at its rituals. Once the characters are introduced and the situation is set up, the story becomes one of a battle of wills between Pai and Kono. There is no real doubt that Pai can fulfill all the chiefly requirements; the question is whether Kono will acknowledge her before a tragedy occurs.

Whale Rider has a lovely balance of myth and ordinary life. A scene in which Kono teaches the boys how to scare the enemy by bugging their eyes and sticking out their tongues is funny both for the way it looks and for the way the boys split between being embarrassed and being delighted to pull faces in class. Much later in the film, the men of the tribe do the same thing, and this time it's apparent that it really is scary if you do it right and with commitment.

This is the way ancient traditions still operate today: silly when you don't believe, and powerful when you do… even if it's just for the space of a movie.

[Rachel Manija Brown]