Joshua Reviews Tusi Tamasese’s ‘The Orator’ [PIFF 2012 Review]

One would imagine that every nation on this planet, at this point in the history of cinema, would have seen their first feature film come and go long ago.   However, for the South Pacific nation of Samoa, that debut on the film landscape has only just come to fruition.

Thanks to director Tusi Tamasese, the nation now has their own bit of cinema in the form of the meditative ‘˜The Orator,’ a debut that brings viewers into the traditions seemingly lost in time that rule this nation and its people.

Also penned by Tamasese, the film follows the story of Saili, a taro farmer living in a village with his wife Vaaiga, and his daughter Litia, and not only looks at the deeply traditional rituals that control this island nation, but also just what it’s like to be a true blue outsider.   A husband and wife team sharing a deep sense of isolation, the former being a dwarf and the latter having been banished from the village years prior, the film itself plays as both a beautiful look into isolation, and a film so intimate that the last thing one would think of is that concept.

Performance wise, this film is shockingly moving.   Star Fa’afiaula Sagote is a first time actor, and yet has an almost Buster Keaton-like ability to emote and tell entire stories just by the use of his face.   The film itself doesn’t ask of him much more than that, but what it does is craft a sense of intimacy surrounding the entire film, making this muted performance fit like a glove.   Tausili Pushparaj and Salamasina Mataia are also great here as his wife and child, but this show distinctly focuses on their patriarch, and with a fantastic performance that this is given, one can’t really blame them.

As far as visually, the film doesn’t really have a ton to offer.   Far from showy, the film uses absolutely still frames to allow the viewer to become steeped in this oddly archaic universe, which is focused so heavily on rituals, that this and the cinematography from New Zealand DP Leon Narbey (whose work is probably best known from the film ‘˜Whale Rider’), really adds this almost Lee Dong Chang-like sense of closeness that really shows that Asian cinema may prove to be a major influence on Samoan film going forward.

The film isn’t without flaw, however.   Quite long, clocking in at nearly two hours in length, the film feels about double that, due to some truly odd pacing and editing, really takes quite a bit away from the film.   Also, the greenness of the cast and crew not only adds a bit of charm, but adds a lot of roughness around the film’s edges.   It’s not at all a perfect film, but like a child trying to walk for the first time, the film has its moments of sheer brilliance, but just as many moments of falling right smack dab on its face.

Overall, despite its flaws, ‘˜The Orator’ is a fantastic bit of cinema from a nation trying to get up on its cinematic feet for the very first time.   Featuring a cast and crew that will see great things going forward, ‘˜The Orator’ is a film that will not only spark a new generation of film from Samoa, but will stand as the nation’s debut feature.   And they couldn’t have asked for a more moving entrance.

The film will play on Sat, Feb 18, 2012 at 2:30 PM (Lloyd Mall 6) and again on Mon, Feb 20, 2012 at 2:30 PM (Pioneer Place 5)

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