Berlin Review: The Patriarch (Mahana)

'Once Were Warriors' director Lee Tamahori returns to his native New Zealand with a tender dynastic drama, 'The Patriarch', set in the 1960s based on the novel by The Whale Rider author Witi Ihimaera.

Set in 1960s rural New Zealand, The Patriarch (Mahana) follows the lives of two rival Maori dynasties, The Poatas and the Mahanas, who make a living rearing sheep on the lush green hills of the surrounding countryside. Tamihaha (Temuera Morrison) is the head of the Mahana clan, and rules with an iron fist. This doesn’t sit well with the young and rebellious Simeon (newcomer Akuhata Keefe), who disobeys his grandfather at every turn.

Joseph Walsh

Over twenty years have passed since New Zealand director Lee Tamahori wowed audiences with his audacious drama Once Were Warriors (1994). Now he is back in his home country, after a detour via Hollywood directing The Edge (1997) and Bond film Die Another Day (2002). He returns with The Patriarch which, like his 1994 film, follows the lives of a Maori family, but this time swaps the slums of Auckland for the pastoral setting of New Zealand’s lush green East Coast in the 1960s.

The film is based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, whose other novel The Whale Rider was also adapted into a movie in 2002. Like the previous film adaptation, The Patriarch pitches itself towards a younger audience but manages to navigate some adult themes with appropriate weighting, albeit it wrapped in a chocolate box aesthetic that drips with nostalgia.

The Patriarch also sees Tamahori reunited with Temuera Morrison, who played the abusive alcoholic Jake in Once Were Warriors. This time around he is given a similarly unlikeable role as the iron-fisted head of the Mahana clan, at logger heads with the younger member of the tribe, Simeon (Akuhata Keefe). Morrison, known to many for his role as the intergalactic bounty hunter Jango Fett in the Star Wars prequels, gives a strong, bullish performance, riding around his homestead on horseback looming over the younger members of the family and barking orders.

Simeon meanwhile is the rebel of the piece, entirely unwilling to bend to the will of his grandfather. For a first time actor, Keefe gives a tremendously sincere performance and allows John Collee’s sharp and often witty script to bounce off his tongue with adolescent insolence. There is also a lot of heart in his performance, particularly when it comes to winning the affections of a young daughter of the rival Poatas clan, and in his relationship with his grandmother, played by the superb Nancy Brunning.

The film plays like a Western, and there are numerous nods to classics of the genre including 3:10 To Yuma (1957) and Red River (1948), both of which Simeon enjoys quoting.

As well as looking up to John Wayne and Glenn Ford, Simeon also shows an affection for the work of George Bernard Shaw, quoting the phrase “a family is a tyranny ruled over by its weakest member.” This line is central to the theme of the film, namely Simeon’s willingness to stand up to his brutish grandfather, rather as a sheriff would to a menacing rustler.

Only fleeting time is given to exploring the race relationships between colonial settlers and the native Maori. The subject of Maori equality crops up when Simeon visits the local court and ask the magistrate why Maoris aren’t allowed to use their language in legal matters. But the subject is promptly dropped and doesn’t resurface throughout the rest of the feature.

For all the chest-thumping that goes on in the movie, there is also space given to exploring the treatment of women in the Maori culture of this period via Brunning’s character, and there is an impressive framing of a plot reveal that adds to the exploration of the subject.

While there are many notable qualities to The Patriarch, there’s also no denying that the exploration of the themes gets to little more than a surface level, and is overly nostalgic in its approach.

However, this is an entertaining and sincere film that explores the relatively untouched subject of Māori history. Lee Tamahori has crafted an engaging and heartfelt dynastic family-drama, bolstered by impressive performances from Nancy Brunning and newcomer Akuhata Keefe, who has proven to be one to watch.

Overall verdict:

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