A collision of realities — earthly nature vs. human nature — lies at the very big heart of “This Way of Life,” catapulting this Kiwi-made story of a Maori family beyond mere portraiture and into a realm of metaphysics, melancholia and cosmic doubt: At the ends of the Earth, in a virtual Eden, is it possible for a family to live without petty grudges, anger, violence and authoritarian rule? There are no easy answers in this gloriously photographed film, but the questions it poses — and its attractive, unconventional subjects — should help it find a life beyond the festival circuit.
The Ottley Karena family — Peter, Colleen and their six children (one of whom is born during the filming) — live a near-Rousseau-like existence in remote northern New Zealand, in a ramshackle house that has been home to seven generations of Peter’s family. Freshly killed game provides the meat for meals, and how it gets there is a process the kids take part in. The children — all beautiful, capable and daring — ride horses almost as well as they walk, and are loved by their parents. They have no needs and few desires; they’re cherubic barbarians. Naturally, everything is about to go wrong.
There’s a certain lack of narrative clarity, or expansiveness at least, in helmer Thomas Burstyn and scribe Barbara Sumner Burstyn’s storytelling that obscures the details. What seems clear is that Peter’s unseen father is selling the house out from under them; thuggish men claiming to have bought the place, and its extensive acreage, come to extort rent money. It’s not quite clear why this is happening; nor is it evident what exactly the conflict is between Peter and the man he calls his father, although there are questions about Peter’s paternity; the gnarled family tree from which Peter fell may have been too confusing to sort out properly without a whole other movie. Still, there’s no question that intergenerational acrimony exists, and when the Ottley Karenas go out one day and their house catches fire, no one blames bad wiring.
Amid this domestic/political hell, the filmmakers present the day-to-day lifestyle of the family in what is otherwise a virtual paradise: Forced out of their old charred house, the family finds an even more beautiful place near the ocean, where their numerous horses can run and be stabled. The kids don’t have a house, exactly — they move into what’s more of a shed — but they seem happy, as do their parents, except for the specter of Peter’s father, whose wrath seems to know no limits.
Fatherhood itself is a major issue for “This Way of Life”; during one extended sequence, Peter describes each of his children in such loving detail that one can hardy doubt the wisdom of the family’s lifestyle, at least as it concerns parenting. It looks like domestic genius when contrasted with Peter’s extended family.
Those various parents and siblings are all but invisible, except for a semi-surreptitious interview that occurs late in the film with Peter’s father, who comes off as brutish and self-pitying. What he represents for the viewer in a macro sense is the cloud in the otherwise azure sky of Peter and Colleen’s rustic, child-filled life.
Tech credits are good, especially Thomas Burstyn’s shooting, although the dialogue (already hard to understand for non-Kiwis due to the subjects’ accents) is occasionally obscured by household noise.