×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Berlin Film Review: ‘The Patriarch’

More than two decades after 'Once Were Warriors,' Lee Tamahori returns to New Zealand with a metaphor of Maori oppression.

With:
Temuera Morrison, Akuhata Keefe, Nancy Brunning, Jim Moriarty, Regan Taylor, Maria Walker, Fraser Brown, Yvonne Porter. (English, Maori dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4424228/

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.

Popular on Variety

Berlin Film Review: 'The Patriarch'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 12, 2016. Running time: 102 MIN. (Original title: “Mahana”)

Production: (New Zealand) An Entertainment One (in Australia/New Zealand) release of a New Zealand Film Commission presentation, in association with NZ on Air, Daydream Prods., of a Jump Film production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Robin Scholes. Co-producers, James Dean, Troy Lum.

Crew: Directed by Lee Tamahori. Screenplay, John Collee, based on the novel “Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies” by Witi Ihimaera. Camera (color, widescreen), Ginny Loane; editors, Michael Horton, Jonathan Woodford-Robinson; music, Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper, Tama Waipara; production designer, Mark Robins; art directors, Ross McGarva, Peter Sweeney; set decorator, Abi Wollcombe; costume designer, Liz McGregor; sound, Chris Burt; re-recording mixers, Michael Hedges, Peter D. Smith; visual effects supervisor, Peter McCully; visual effects, Albedo VFX; special effects supervisor, Dean Clarke; stunt coordinator, Steve McQuillan; animal coordinator, Amelia Cook; associate producer, Ihimaera; assistant director, Luke Robinson; casting, Matt Dwyer, Mike Dwyer.

With: Temuera Morrison, Akuhata Keefe, Nancy Brunning, Jim Moriarty, Regan Taylor, Maria Walker, Fraser Brown, Yvonne Porter. (English, Maori dialogue)

More Film

  • A Hidden Life Movie Austria

    Film News Roundup: Austin Festival Selects Terrence Malick's 'A Hidden Life'

    In today’s film news roundup, the Austin Film Festival selects a Terrence Malick title, “A Day Without a Mexican” gets a sequel and DCR Finance signs a first-look deal. FESTIVAL SCREENING The Austin Film Festival will screen Terrence Malick’s “A Hidden Life,” which won the Francois Chalais and Ecumenical Jury awards at the Cannes Film [...]

  • Blake Lively

    Blake Lively's 'Rhythm Section' Moved Back to 2020

    Paramount Pictures has moved the release date of Blake Lively’s “The Rhythm Section” back two months from Nov. 22 to Jan. 31, 2020, the weekend of Super Bowl LIV. The spy tale, adapted from Mark Burnell’s novels surrounding character Stephanie Patrick, is produced by James Bond producers Barbara Broccoli and Michael G. Wilson through their [...]

  • The Mandalorian

    'The Mandalorian': Watch the First Trailer for 'Star Wars' Series

    The gunslinging lone warrior — the Mandalorian, as they call him — calls the far reaches of the “Star Wars” galaxy home. Disney dropped the first trailer for the spinoff series during its biennial D23 convention on Friday, finally giving fans a closer look at the franchise’s newest character. “The Mandalorian” creator Jon Favreau, who [...]

  • Lady and the Tramp trailer

    'Lady and the Tramp': Disney's Live-Action Remake Gets First Trailer (Watch)

    Ready your dog-friendly bowl of spaghetti, Disney has debuted the first trailer for its live-action remake of “Lady and the Tramp,” starring Tessa Thompson and Justin Theroux. The teaser was released during Disney’s D23 Expo in Anaheim at the Disney + presentation. In addition to Thompson and Theroux, who play the Lady and Tramp, respectively, [...]

  • Mickey Mouse waves to members of

    Spider-Man, Spicer and Splashy First-Looks: Everything We're Looking For at D23

    As if Disney hasn’t owned enough weekends this year at the box office, the biennial D23 Expo will light up Anaheim, Calif. over the next three days to celebrate the content monolith. From a new Netflix-competing streaming platform to scores of movie and series reveals — along with a few hot controversies to confront — [...]

  • Angel Has Fallen

    'Angel Has Fallen' to Dominate Modest Box Office With $20 Million Weekend

    Gerard Butler and Morgan Freeman are leading the way at the North American box office with “Angel Has Fallen” on its way to about $20 million, early estimates showed Friday. Should forecasts hold, “Angel Has Fallen” will take in about double the next title, Universal’s second weekend of raunchy comedy “Good Boys” with about $10 [...]

  • Aracne

    Sanfic Standout ‘Aracne’ Filmmakers Discuss the State of Chilean Genre

    A key project at this year’s Santiago Lab, the Santiago Intl. Film Festival industry forum for promising Latin American projects, Florencia Dupont’s “Aracne” is representative of a push from the next generation of Chilean filmmakers into genre cinema and the themes it can explore. “Aracne” turns on Beatriz, a young journalist at a small Santiago [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content