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This is undoubtly one of the best movies of the 90's, featuring a harrowing account of domestic abuse and family dysfunction like never before shown on film. The realism of every shot in this movie, the incredible, and i mean incredible, performances, and the poignant script make this movie an unforgetable experience, although an emotionally difficult one.
Set in New Zealand, the film is about a Maori family torn apart by domestic violence. Beth (Rena Owen) is the mother of 5 children, and the wife of a violent alcoholic husband Jake (Temuera Morrison). One moment a charming man, the next a violent monster, Jake is unemployed and likes to spend his time with his buddies spending the little money he has betting and drinking. And when he's had his drinks, he beats his wife senseless. Beth is completely torn apart between the duty she feels she has towards her children in keeping her family together and that for some crazy reason she does love Jake, and the fact that her life is constantly truly physically threatened by her husband. And the family is also dissolving. Her older son has left home a long time ago and belongs to a gang. Her younger son is also getting into trouble, and one day, after a surprise visit to their house by social services, the authorities have had enough and want to send him to a youth center to be taken care of. The day of the hearing, Jake beat Beth unconscious and she is unable to go. As a result, the younger son is taken away. It finally takes a truly dramatic turn of event to make Beth finally stand up for herself and her children: "If my spirit can survive living with you for eighteen years, then I can survive anything".
This is a very violent movie shot in a very realistic way. Some scenes will be very hard to watch as Jake, a towering muscle-bound hulk, beats his wife to a pulp. But it's not just the violence, but also the emotional abandon that all the members of this family suffer from: there seems to not be any solution in sight, and the future, all the way to the powerful ending, looks very bleak. All of them suffer from Jake's violence and feel like deers in the headlights: his bursts of violence are so unpredictible that it almost always takes everybody offguard.
The filming style accentuates the violence by focusing squarely on it, with very few jump cuts, long shots, and a hand-held camera that accentuates a documentary feel. The rest of the direction is brilliant on how it focuses on the impetus of violence, seemingly coming out of nowhere to strike. You are treated to a beautiful scene of warmth between Beth and Jake, only to be shocked back in emotional trauma the next moment, beth gets beaten up. The movie is structured and filmed to accentuate the punches and focus as a result on Beth's inner strength and beauty. The physical and emotional violence she is subjected to only reinforces her force of character leading up to the final turn of the story as she draws on her cultural traditionalism, the pride of her Maori people and ancestors, to take herself out of this viscious situation she found herself trapped in over the years.
One of the most impressive element of the movie has to be the performances. Rena Owen (Beth) is absolutely amazing in how she conveys the contrasts and conflicts a batterred woman suffers from. Her heroic recovery towards the end of the movie, when things get finally better after they have gone the worst possible way, feels like the rebirth of a phoenix. You finally get to see her inner strength that you could only guess before. She also has a physical presence that is strongly felt in each shot where she appears: she possesses an inner beauty that explodes out, even in her worst moments. Her cultural tradition is what keeps her alive. Temuera Morrison (Jake), as the violent man, is also incredible. He is scarier than Hannibal, scarrier than Darth Vader, scarrier than Leatherface. His physical performance and complete abject personality make for a remarkable role. Every time the worst of him shows up on screen, it is impossible not to feel shivers down your spine: the character is the kind of person you wouldn't want to meet in your nightmares. Every time i see him in another film, i think: "what a waste". He is an amazing actor that never got another chance at a truly challenging and poignant role since this movie. I don't understand how that is. Both Rena Owen and Temuera Morrison give us Oscar-caliber performances that are nuanced, profound, and realistic to the point of being scary.
The script is smart, edgy, raw, and deep. Although domestic abuse is front and center, deeper themes of cultural tradition, fitting as a minority in an unaccepting society, and the meaning of love and caring, abound and are explored in details. If the movie were only about domestic abuse, given the sharpness of the script and the incredible performances, it would have been a fantastic movie. What pushes it over the edge as a great movie to me is how it deeply weaves the cultural aspects and history of the Maori people into the core emotional threads of the story. In this respect, it makes this movie similar to the recent Whale Rider. Maoris are outcasts in the New Zealand society, and within this minority group, generations are deeply divided: grandparents have lost respect for their offsprings viewing them as people who have lost their honor and price; parents are often subject to alcoholism, ouf of work, constantly trying to make ends meet; the youngs are prone to crime, and gang life and have little respect for their parents they see as old fashioned. This is a sharp contrast to their proud past as a unified, family centric, and culturally rich society of warriors.
Within this societal aspect, in addition, Jake suffers from further problems. You see, Jake is not Maori: he is the descendant of black slaves. That puts him in a position of inferiority vis a vis his wife and is the source of much of the resentment and resulting violence he unleashes onto her. In a key scene in the movie, Beth cries out a line that is the source of the movie's title: "Our people once were warriors. But unlike you, Jake, they were people with mana, pride; people with spirit". Being the obtuse person that he is, he cannot but take this remark as an attack on his origins and the rage is eating him from inside.
Finally, there is an underlying strong overpowering theme about family and cultural tradition as means to survive this modern difficult and unwelcoming world. The younger son ends up being saved through learning the traditional warrior dance of the Maoris, giving him discipline and a deeper understanding of his cultural roots. And Beth's inner strengh comes from the pride she gets from her culture. She believes in her own survival based on the strength of her warrior ancestors.
This is a multi-layered story with poignant themes, harrowing moments of pain, violence and disheartening fate, while at the same time building up to an incredible uplifting moment of believing in something better, stronger, more respectable, like an imminant salvation of body and soul, even at great personal costs. Combining a incredibly direct raw and realistic script with incredible performances, and deep cultural ties to the Maori culture, this movie cannot but affect you deeply and make you feel closer to a little known culture in this world. Although similar to Whale Rider in how family and cultural traditionalisms are powerful forces for the Maori people in helping people in trouble, this movie is, to me at least, much more powerful in its message because the characters are shown descending into a living hell before being saved in the end, even if it is at a great cost. The constant threat of a great danger makes the drama here much more pallatable and powerful in my opinion. This is a difficult movie, but it is also one of the most touching, involving and powerful film ever made.
- Laurent Hasson