A Maori woman in silent mourning sits in bereavement black awaiting her trip to a burial. Before departing for the dearly departed’s funeral, it’s a state of sombre solemnity, the soberly dressed matriarch carrying out inspection of the attire his family are wearing to this sad occasion.
Soon this serene yet stern scene gives way to a riotous car race as two feuding families fang it out to finish first at the funeral.
MAHANA, Lee Tamahori’s welcome return home film, spools like a Western, with its protagonists gun shearers not gun slingers, and the old scores settled through brain rather than brawn.
Set in the early 1960s, East Coast of New Zealand, MAHANA tells the epic tale of two Māori sheep-shearing families, the Mahanas and the Poatas, long standing enemies and commercial rivals.
14-year-old Simeon Mahana, the youngest son of the youngest son, is in conflict with his traditionalist grandfather, Tamihana, who runs the roost like some cock spurred rooster.
Like a despotic King Lear, his patriarchal megalomania blinds his intellectual and emotional reasoning and he banishes Simeon’s branch of the family, causing a catastrophic schism to the dynasty he has striven so hard to build and maintain.
The fissure in the family leads Simeon to unravel the truth behind the feud between the two families, a quest that risks not just his own future prospects but the cohesion of the entire community.
Based on Witi Ihimaera’s novel, Bulibasha: King of the Gypsies, John Collee’s screenplay is classically structured with a clear through line of Simeon’s coming of age coupled with the dawn of a new age in both the clan and society, shot through with a number of truly thrilling set pieces including the car chase, a sheep shearing competition and a compelling court room sequence that spotlights the chasm between law and justice.
Tamahori’s helming is pitch perfect to this classical structure, reminiscent of of the social justice films of the Fifties, among them Delmer Daves’ 3.10 from Yuma which features brilliantly within the film.
There’s not a dud performance in this large cast epic, but three towering performances set the scape and scope of the drama.
Temuera Morrison’s patriarch is a powerful performance of stolid stubbornness.
As his wife, Ramona, Nancy Brunning brings a stoic pragmatism and dignity, a loving matriarch in harmony with the natural world, open hearted affection in the face of hard hearted affliction.
And Akuhata Keefe as Simeon, fearless, funny, and focal to the unfolding drama.
Production values are top notch and Ginny Loane’s lensing generates lasting optical appeal. The North Island landscapes are gorgeously rendered.
MAHANA comes with quite a pedigree – source material from the writer of Whale Rider, screenplay by the adapter of Master and Commander, and the reunion of director, producer and star of Once Were Warriors.
The potential is potently realised with a sensationally strong narrative film that shows the paltry story telling of much of contemporary cinema.
MAHANA is receiving a mere two week release window at only one screen in Sydney – Dendy Newtown. In a box office bloated by so called blockbusters that are more concerned with special effects than story, with demolition rather than construction, MAHANA offers a substantial and satisfying alternative.