Seen through the eyes of a Maori teen on the brink of manhood, “The Patriarch” plays like a classic Western as it proudly expands the still-limited canon of essential films about New Zealand’s tribal people, telling of a young man who dares to stand up to both his domineering grandfather and The Man at a time when equality and respect were in short supply for natives. Adapted from “The Whale Rider” author Witi Ihimaera’s most personal novel, “Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies,” this well-crafted (and wisely retitled) 1960s family saga marks a return to Maori roots for “Once Were Warriors” helmer Lee Tamahori, who went off and made a series of blockbuster action movies, including “Die Another Day” and “The Edge,” before landing in director jail with “The Devil’s Double.” What better way to regroup than by tackling such a sincere homage to his homeland, which blends incredible cultural specificity with Tamahori’s internationally accessible storytelling style?
Fourteen-year-old Simeon Mahana (Akuhata Keefe) is just a shaggy-haired kid when we meet him, and though he’s already tall enough to fancy himself a man, he has quite a bit of maturing still to do. Of course, no child appreciates being underestimated by his elders, and few could blame Simeon for resenting his grandfather Tamihana (Temuera Morrison) when the inflexible old man asks him to stay behind with the womenfolk while the grown men go off to work shearing the white men’s sheep. Still, Simeon is in no place to argue with Tamihana, who fought hard to earn the land, love and livelihood that serve as the foundation for the Mahana family, and in a gesture of begrudging respect, the lad does his best to honor the clan’s undisputed rule-maker.
At school, however, Simeon’s teacher (Fraser Brown) quotes a line from George Bernard Shaw that adds fuel to the young man’s frustrations: “A family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member.” Where everyone else sees strength in Tamihana’s unwavering rule of law, Simeon begins to realize that his grandfather’s rigid nature may actually be a cover for certain frailties of character, which ever so gradually gives the boy the confidence to stand up not only to Tamihana, but also to other authority figures as well — as in the film’s most impactful scene, during a class field trip to a local courthouse where Maori defendants are forbidden from speaking their own language, when Simeon challenges one of the judge’s harsher sentences.
Though the film tends not to dwell on the strained dynamic between white settlers and the Maori people, this courtroom confrontation suggests that Tamihana’s iron-willed patriarchy may in fact be a metaphor for the greater injustice done by the Europeans who colonized the country: In addition to making and enforcing the laws, white men controlled the land, while natives were expected to be grateful for what little autonomy they were allowed. Likewise, Tamihana keeps his five children in check by lending (but never outright giving) them his land, telling them who and when they can marry, and so on — all this while cultivating a feud with the region’s other sheep-shearing family, the Poatas.
As Tamihana pushes Simeon to be a more obedient son, the boy can’t help but question some of the ideas that have kept the rest of his family in check, the most obvious being the long standoff with the Poata clan — a conflict he’s eager to thaw after stealing a kiss from pretty Poppy Poata (Yvonne Porter) at the local cinema. True to his ascetic nature, Tamihana doesn’t approve of the pictures, and it’s a disagreement over what Tamahori no doubt considers the indispensible pleasure of cinema that backfires so spectacularly that the old man banishes not only Simeon but also that entire arm of his family tree from his table, similarly cutting them off from his inheritance. For Simeon’s parents, Joshua (Regan Taylor) and Huria (Maria Walker), this comes as a devasting setback, though it also gives the Mahana’s long-suffering matriarch, Ramona (Nancy Brunning), a chance to assert herself.
Over Tamihana’s objections, she offers Joshua her own land, as well as what remains of the house still standing there — now little more than a glorified shack with a leaky roof and no running water. Still, it’s more than Tamihana had to his name when he was starting out (though such stories can sometimes be misleading, as demonstrated by a romantic legend concerning the way he rode up on horseback and “rescued” Ramona on her wedding day), and Joshua and his disgraced family members are actually made stronger by this experience, as well as the fact of finally being out from under Tamihana’s control. Now, with the spell broken and Joshua temporarily incapacitated by a nasty fall, Simeon finally feels free to assert his own identity — a necessary step to both independence and becoming his own patriarch.
For native New Zealanders, Simeon’s arc represents an important rite of passage, culminating when he is called upon to mediate a controversial family secret. Though the journey may feel somewhat vanilla compared with the gritty gang world of “Once Were Warriors,” the film is no less vital to the community it depicts, illustrating such values as responsibility and reconciliation in ways that even young audiences can understand. And though adults may find “The Patriarch” too simplistic or predictable in parts, the movie offers no shortage of local color to compensate, from widescreen views of rolling green hills (lensed outside Auckland, which doubles for the country’s East coast) to the forms of labor that marked the end of the Maori’s rural way of life, even after many had moved to urban areas.
Work — above all, pride in a job well done — plays a central role here, with long sequences dedicated to the art of sheep shearing, clearing scrub and other around-the-farm chores, each filmed in such a way that you’d never guess that gentle-looking newcomer Brown (completely convincing in his wood-chopping incompetence) and his fellow actors weren’t breaking a sweat themselves. In the 22 years since “Once Were Warriors,” numerous New Zealand actors have gone on to become international stars (Morrison, who plays Tamihana, even appeared in the “Star Wars” prequels), though Tamahori assembles a lesser known ensemble here, which gives the eponymous patriarch an even greater power over his co-stars.