From Australia comes this film about Aborigines, their history, their culture. It is set thousands of years prior to Western settlement two hundred years ago—in fact, the narrator, an eternal voiceover, jokes as he introduces the story that we “see,” “Once upon a time, in a land far, far away,” before he laughingly explains that his is not that kind of story. It’s his story; not ours.
Actually, the film is a story within a story. In the interior story, the leader of a hunt for magpie geese tells a story to one of the young hunters, who has taken a shine to the youngest of his wives. This long, involved narrative is meant to teach the boy patience—and something else that is more commonsensical: the lesson, one should not bite off more than one can possibly chew. The tribal leader doesn’t threaten his own retribution; rather, life itself, and the spirits that life harbors, deliver their own consequences. Impatiently, the boy at various points tries to move the story along; but, in a sense, it is a still story—still, like the immense swamp nearby. In time, the timeless story-within-the-story and the outer story occasioned by the hunt for food mesh. The young hunter who fancied himself a cocksure warrior upon Nature learns his humble place in the natural world. For our part, we learn about the Aboriginal version of reincarnation, where some part of the spirit of the dead returns to the “waterhole” to be fished out by a father who unites this potential human life with its new mother.
Although at times bracingly violent (although not as violent, say, as Martin Scorsese’s The Departed, the same year), this film is charming, funny, gorgeous, fascinating. It reminded me occasionally of The Puppetmaster (1993), by Taiwan’s Hou Hsiao-hsien. It is about the art of storytelling—art, that is, that comingles with life, interacts with it, where each translates into the other, defining a people and a path for them to follow.
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