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New Zealand 2002
Directed by
Niki Caro
97 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bruce Paterson
4 stars

Whale Rider

Synopsis: Maori chief, Koro (Rawiri Paratene), can’t accept the failure of his two sons to take over his role, and pins his hopes on the birth of a grandson. When Koro’s eldest son’s wife dies in childbirth, survived by her baby girl, Pai, the hopes of a new leader seem to be lost. Pai (Keisha Castle-Hughes) grows up in the care of her grandparents as her father is mostly absent. This is the story of the coming of age of herself and her community.

Whale Rider is a wonderfully moving and emotionally honest exploration of a Maori legend and the cultural adaptations of a present-day Maori community. It is the story of the search for leadership.

Based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, the film was written and directed by Niki Caro in close consultation with Maori elders. In adapting the novel for the screen, Caro has deftly woven a tale of power, sexual politics, and cultural legend that is at times very funny and very sad. The film is not just a story of overcoming preconceptions about the role of women, but how leadership can be found in unexpected people. While power in this community is notionally in the hands of men, the women have power in the homes, and often bear the sole responsibility for child-raising as many young fathers are absent. As the film explores Maori rituals through song and performance, it becomes clear that the role of women is pivotal.

The film’s title is drawn from the community’s belief that their ancestors migrated across the sea on the backs of whales. Stunning underwater whale photography marks the film’s cadences. The whales/spirits are ultimately called back to the community by the widening rift between Pai and Koro; and the community discovers who its next leaders will be in a dramatic climax.

Whale Rider captures the spirit, tragedy and humor of a small community coming to terms with the conflict between old and new. The characters develop in wonderfully unexpected ways – expressing more in a moment of silence than many films do in whole scenes. Pai’s grandmother, Flowers (Muzzi Loffredo), deserves a particular mention as the understated and gruffly funny anchor of the family.  In the lead, the performance by Keisha Castle-Hughes, the youngest person ever to be nominated for an Academy Award is captivating and truly magnificent.




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