Carting crates of beer from the neighborhood bar to parties in his house, he drinks until he explodes in the most barbarous and realistic wife beating even seen on a movie screen.
"Once Were Warriors" is a film of stunning power whose brutality, beauty, and grace will sear your memory. It is a story of some of New Zealand's Maori people, who have moved from their heritage to the modern world, only to become stuck in poverty on the outskirts of Auckland in the shadow of a billboard that trumpets New Zealand's natural beauty.
In this settlement of friends, the Heke family--Jake, Beth, and their five children--is mired in the alienation that comes from belonging to neither world. They sing when they are happy, they sing when they are drunk, and they are drunk much of the time. Alcohol fuels their pleasure and their violence. "Our people once were warriors, with pride and spirit," one says, and now the pride is gone.
The liquor-soaked marriage of Beth (Rena Owen) and Jake (Temuera Morrison) is the focus of this sad and savage story. On the day he is laid off, Jake intensifies his drinking to cover his rage at being a loser and to forget his miserable surroundings. Carting crates of beer from the neighborhood bar to parties in his house, he drinks until he explodes in the most barbarous and realistic wife beating even seen on a movie screen.
Barely able to speak with her swollen throat, Beth fights back with words that invite more violence. This woman's weapon is language. She pokes and provokes Jake as she passes in and out of resentment and resignation.
Long a willing participant in the culture of sex and alcohol, Beth understands the depth of Jake's violence only when it threatens her children, especially Grace, a sweet-hearted storyteller who protects her younger siblings. "Our Grace hasn't a violent bone in her body, but we've made sure it's all around her," Beth says. When Jake's wrath has done its full damage, Beth reaches for her Maori roots in a moving communion of old and new cultures.
In very demanding roles, the Maori cast is uniformly and entirely credible. Playing Beth, Rena Owen suggests Jeanne Moreau, as she exudes a fierce intelligence that makes her every thought and action unpredictable. Hers is a remarkable presence, and she will surely be a major player in the films of this decade. Mamaengaroa Kerr-Bell, as Grace, has a haunting vulnerability along with a wisdom that renders her ageless. Playing Jake, Temuera Morrison summons the awful, apt ability to make the bitter man barbaric and tragic at once.
Drunken men singing their way to violence in fine harmony, a proud woman reduced to pulp, gentle children destroyed by the role of witness, two sons searching desperately for identity, gentle Grace, monstrous Jake, and proud Beth: This film has a ferocious resonance. It is devastating. If you are tempted to skip it, as well you may be, ask yourself how long it has been since a movie left an imprint on your soul.
Film Critic: JOAN ELLIS
Word Count: 499
Studio: A Fine Line Features release of a Communicado film
Rating: R 1h48m
Copyright (c) Illusion
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