The first feature filmed entirely in Samoan, “The Orator” is a compelling drama with more to offer than just anthropological interest. An exploration of love, death and bitter family conflict that unfolds in sync with the relaxed rhythms of Pacific island life, this New Zealand production marks an auspicious feature debut for writer-helmer Tusi Tamasese. It will speak most poignantly to auds in Oceania, but on the back of its Venice preem, it could travel along similar offshore streams to those of other indigenous-themed pics like “Ten Canoes,” although it’s not quite as sophisticated as that film.
Filmed entirely in and around villages on Upolu, Samoa’s most populated island, the story centers around a hamlet where Saili (tremendously soulful-eyed Fa’afiaula Sagote), a dwarf and the son of one of the village’s late chiefs, lives with his average-statured wife, Vaaiga (an excellent Tausili Pushparaj, exuding the dignity of a queen), and Vaaiga’s teenage daughter, Litia (Salamasina Mataia). Seventeen years ago, Vaaiga was banished from her own village when she conceived Litia out of wedlock. Now, Vaaiga’s brother Poto (Ioata Tanielu) comes to visit and tries to persuade Vaaiga to return with him, convinced that making things right with her is the only way to heal his injured leg, but she’d rather go on living with Saili.
A man of few words, Saili is in conflict with neighbors who insist on planting yams (which he cuts down regularly) around his parents’ grave. He’d like to follow in his father’s footsteps and succeed the current village chief, Tagaloa (Ga Sakaria), but Tagaloa doesn’t think Saili is up to it, given his size and the way he is mocked by the other villagers. Just how hard it is for Saili to win respect is illustrated when he comes into conflict with Sio (Lino Lemana), a local man who’s gotten Litia pregnant but refuses to own up to it.
Tamasese gradually weaves the separate story strands together (fittingly, given the centrality of straw mats that various characters weave and give as gifts in the story), culminating in a scene in which Saili must make a ceremonial oration after a tragedy — a touchingly crafted and performed sequence that grips as drama and as an insightful look at the Samoan way of life.
Script offers an insider’s view of a society that just about keeps a lid on simmering violence through complex, ritualized forms of group interaction and humor, a portrait that goes some way toward exploding the myth of Samoans as peace-loving, noble-savage proto-hippies. Balance of cultural insights and storytelling makes for a universally appealing yarn that renders the exotic comprehensible, although the film’s stately pace may prove challenging to viewers with shorter attention spans.
Finely composed lensing by ace Kiwi d.p. Leon Narbey (“Whale Rider”) works equally well in the lush outdoor locations and the darkened interior spaces where the often cross-legged characters square off against each other in a series of charged but soft-spoken confrontations. Melancholy score and sound design by Tim Prebble enhances the tragic mood without overdoing the emotions or the ethnic vibe.