WHALE RIDER (Niki Caro, 2002)

A lovely, somewhat sentimental Maori fable, Whale Rider, from New Zealand, is based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera. Since Niki Caro, who wrote and directed the film, isn’t Maori herself, the Maori source helps shore up the film’s authenticity. Like too many movies taken from novels, though, Caro’s is badly in need of compression; it’s too full of plot. That said, it’s a marvelous entertainment, nicely felt, warm and humane, strikingly photographed, beautifully acted. I do not categorize this film as a fable lightly; it’s fabulous—at least under the sea. In more ways than one, for us, it takes us to “another world,” a mythic dimension where animals and a human girl interact.

There are, I think, joint protagonists. This is really the story of two characters, one very young, one not so young, a 12-year-old girl and her grandfather. The girl is Pai, and her grandfather is Koro, who runs a class for local boys in an attempt to find the one among them meant to lead their community spiritually according to Maori lore. This is an attempt to fill the void left by the death at birth of his grandson, who was supposed to become this chieftain according to their family descendence, at least in Koro’s eyes, because he was the boy child. But Pai came from the same womb, and as she grows she comes to believe that the spiritual leadership of their community, the seaside fishing village of Whangara, is in fact her own destiny. A traditionalist, Koro, although he comes to love his granddaughter dearly, will have none of that. It has to be a boy. An index of the harshness of his position is that, at Pai’s birth, in the scene at hospital with which the film begins, Koro pays no attention to the fact that his daughter-in-law died in childbirth, and this insensitivity drives a wedge between him and his elder son, who moves away from the village. If only Koro had stepped back and surveyed the human cost of his obstinate position. If only he valued girls as human beings rather than relegating them to a status inferior to that of boys. Indeed, in this richly ambiguous film—and, let me tell you, the film closes with a lollapalooza of an ambiguity—he might have realized that the death of one twin is a sign from his ancestors in the spirit world that the other, surviving twin is the anointed one. But adhering to the form of his intermediary role between spirit and matter, he misses the heartbeat—his granddaughter’s—enjoining matter and spirit.

His wife, Nanny Flowers, is a patient woman who does her best to let Koro think he rules her while all the while guiding him as best she can to the truth about female equality of spirit. It is she who, in the opening scene, places their granddaughter in Koro’s unwelcoming arms, thus beginning to forge the bond between them. It is she who counsels him not to push their son, Porourangi, at this tragic moment, when he has just lost both wife and son, in the direction of finding another wife and starting over so that he, Koro, may sooner have the male grandchild he feels that he has been cheated out of. Not that Koro listens; it takes a long time for Koro to listen. The signal to us that he is about to listen with all his heart is the most piercing ringing telephone in all of cinema. It breaks the traditionalist, unmodernly quiet spell that the film has woven and drawn us into. It is the call telling Koro that his granddaughter, thought drowned in the sea riding a beached whale back to its watery dominion, has washed up on shore.

I apparently “read” the film differently from other reviewers, who believe Pai survives. For me, her voiceover comment while under the sea, “I am not afraid to die,” is prelude to the finest, most mysterious image in the film: Pai’s drifting from camera to her disappearance in the water—to her death. At hospital, when she opens her eyes for an instant as her grandfather, alone, sits by her bed, I do not see this as a sign of life but as a sign of communion, and forgiveness, from the other side. And in the film’s overwhelmingly moving final scene of reconciliation, in which the disparate community has come together, and where we see that Porourangi has returned from Europe with his very pregnant wife, hers a white face that perfectly meshes with the darker Maori faces, I do indeed also see Pai right by Koro’s side in the long boat the men are taking to sea. However, I believe Pai is there in spirit, guiding Koro, while other viewers apparently believe she has returned from the dead. It doesn’t matter. The ambiguity holds. However she is there, she is there. Let me note, though, that Pai’s voiceover narration throughout the film, which is preparatory to my reading, establishes and sustains Pai’s “presence” in a disembodied state.

There are all sorts of parallels that enrich the film’s fabric. One whale leads a sea of whales much as Pai, whose destiny is profoundly connected to that of the whales, eventually proves herself the leader of Whangara. Koro just doesn’t reject one grandchild for another, choosing to lament the dead one above celebrating the living one; it is implied he has favored his elder son over his younger one, whose drift into the misshapenness of his beer belly becomes a visual index of his father’s preference for Porourangi. The spectacle of beached whales on the brink of death, in answer to Pai’s prayer for the whales to come in, provokes from Koro the question, “Who is to blame?” He sets blame on Pai (“You’ve done enough!”), thus, without fully comprehending the implications of this remark, acknowledging her power, and of course, accepting the blame herself, she leads the whales back to life, possibly (as I interpret the film) at the expense of her own life. The ultimate answer to Koro’s question, reminding us of Oedipus, then becomes himself—he is to blame. Koro’s destiny all along has been to realize Pai’s destiny, and much trouble and heartache has resulted from his resistance to this.

The film has widely been interpreted as feminist, and it certainly will support the hopes of women in societies that oppress them. I agree; the film is feminist. However, let me add that, as gentle as a breeze, it is scarcely didactic and not at all dogmatic. It’s full of life and reverence for all its characters, including the nonprofessional inhabitants of Whangara, where the film was actually shot.

I came to the film with a prejudice: I was prepared not to like the digitalized underwater scenes of the mammoth whales. I was won over by them, however. Here are moments of haunting visual splendor. Manfred Büttner is responsible for the film’s visual effects; Kevin Riley photographed underwater. On land, the color cinematography is also first-rate. Leon Narbey is the craftsperson responsible for this.

Every performance in the film is wonderful. Keisha Castle-Hughes is extraordinary as Pai. Among the complex things she manages to do is to portray a child who, absolutely confident about her tribal destiny, is nonetheless vulnerably adrift in a child’s raw feelings in all other matters. Hers is an amazingly subtle and flexible performance. While I think the film would have benefitted by including something visionary to solidify Koro’s shift in perception of his granddaughter’s destiny, Rawiri Paratene does a magnificent job in portraying Koro’s obstinacy and fits of anger. However, the performance that really matches Castle-Hughes’s is that of Vicky Haughton as Nanny Flowers. Here again an actor’s flexibility astonishes, for Haughton manages to show both the process and emotional cost for Nanny to balance both her loves, for spouse and granddaughter.

In addition to winning a slew of audience awards at festivals all around the world, Whale Rider was named best film, and Caro best director, at the Seattle International Film Festival.





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