starring Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis
screenplay by Niki Caro, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera
directed by Niki Caro
RIVERS AND TIDES
directed by Thomas Riedelsheimer
by Walter Chaw The images in Niki Caro's second film, Whale Rider, are so heartbreakingly beautiful that at times the narrative diminishes its mythic gravity. It resembles John Sayles's brilliant The Secret of Roan Inish not only in subject, but also in the understanding that film has the potential to be the most cogent extrapolation of the oral storytelling tradition. When the picture's young protagonist sings an ancient Maori song to a dark ocean, there is an indescribable power to the film that springs from firelight--what we've lost in modernity as orphans to our collective past.
Pai (an extraordinary Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the granddaughter of Koro (Rawiri Paratene), whose stillborn twin brother was to have been the last hope of Koro's bloodline, traceable to the first Maori inhabitants of New Zealand born there on the back of a whale. Barred from the patrilineal culture, Pai educates herself in tribal tradition with the silent encouragement of her grandmother Flowers (Vicky Haughton), the pair crushed beneath the weight of Koro's desperation for immortality through the continuation of his line.
Whale Rider is embedded in the landscape with performances so strong and natural that the simplicity of the picture's fable lands with an almost unbearable eloquence. More's the pity, then, that during a few moments when silence would have sufficed, Caro inserts voiceover, a crutch out of place in a piece this forceful and gripping that particularly undermines the film's conclusion. Occasional lapses of confidence aside, Whale Rider is deeply involved in the mysterious, often weaving its threads sublime and familiar into the kind of delicate tapestry that inspires.
Working in the same undertows and subterranean currents, German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer profiles Scottish sculptor Andy Goldsworthy in the amazing feature-length documentary, Rivers and Tides. Goldsworthy's medium is nature, arranging icicles, moss, plant stems and more into serpentine structures that pierce rocks and trees in mimic motion of fluid patterns. Designed to be destroyed by the inexorable advance of the very tide and wind that inspired it, Goldsworthy's sculptures imitate the inevitable waxing and waning of existence and the importance of embracing temporariness to find any true meaning in eternity.
Riedelsheimer demonstrates a wonderful understanding of the artist and the philosophy governing his art, showing Goldsworthy at work meticulously stacking bits of slate into a large "egg" doomed to be swallowed by the ocean and juxtaposing it against another rock egg gradually overgrown in a forest clearing. Later, Goldsworthy's statement that the appearance of things is shaped by what lies beneath is intercut with a shot of a rock just under the surface of a stream, then a time-lapse of a clay wall that dries in a pattern dictated at some earlier point by the artist's hand. By the end, the greatest triumph of Rivers and Tides is Riedelsheimer's ability to offer the audience the artist's perspective. What appears at the beginning of the picture to be spontaneous patterns and found creations by the end reveal themselves as drawing their inspiration from the patterns of the nature that the artist endeavours to express.
Both Whale Rider and Rivers and Tides find the insistent pulse of life in the rhythms of the natural world--taking their cues from the Romanticists in taking nature as the primary testament to the spirit of man. Like Robert Frost finding the key to life in the dance of a spider and moth ("Design"), the films embrace the inexpressible loveliness of simplicity and the wisdom of our lizard brains speaking in languages measureless to modern man. Film as oral tradition in film's ironic sense (its storytelling often best when wordless), Whale Rider and Rivers and Tides are complimentary portraits not just of embracing the dance between man and his environment, but of how film, no matter the genre, can be as enigmatic and familiar as shadows dancing on a wall. Originally published: June 6, 2003.