Reviewed by: Carole McDonnell
Starring:Keisha Castle-Hughes, Rawiri Paratene, Vicky Haughton, Cliff Curtis, Grant Roa | Directed by: Niki Caro | Produced by: Jim Sanders, John Barnett, Frank Hubner | Written by: Niki Caro, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera | Distributor: Newmarket Films
Whale Rider is a film about a rejected leader. Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) is the only surviving child of a chief’s son. Her twin, the hoped-for son and future chief, died at birth along with his mother. Her father Porourangi (Cliff Curtis) names her after Paikea, the legendary whale rider who brought their people to New Zealand eons ago. The spiritual law requires that the banner is passed from first son to first son on through the line. Thus, other possibilities, Paikea’s uncle (a second son) and Paikea, will not fulfill the law.
Paikea’s grandfather, Koro, (Rawiri Paratene) longs for the hereditary grandson who will bring his people light, leadership and truth Paikea’s absent artist-father is not going to indulge his father by creating another son. He knows all too well the dangers of being the hope of his people. His brother and daughter, on the other hand, know all too well what rejection is about.
Few movies have successfully shown the pain of being a rejected child. “Whale Rider” does. Paikea has come into her own and her own (her grandfather) is not able to receive her.
The Bible is full of stories of people who were “the wrong sex.” Zelophehad’s daughters had to plead for their inheritances. Deborah had to go into battle because Barak would not. And this film, based on the novel by Witi Ihimaera, uses an old Maori legend in much the same way a gifted priest might use one of the aforementioned Biblical passages.
Much in “Whale Rider” parallels the Christ story. The audience knows that sooner or later the stone which the builder rejected is fated to become the head cornerstone. The Princess will resurrect to ascend the throne after much humiliation and spiritual death.
There are also other spiritual parallels: the call of the prophet, God’s and the regular folks’ acceptance of the prophet while the upper hierarchy (the grandfather) rejects. But other spiritual aspects of the film might bother some Christians. The honoring of the ancestors might trouble some people, for instance, although there is nothing inherently unChristian in remembering one’s ancestors. The Bible is full of references to great ancestors.
The central portion of this film concerns a male ritual that Paikea is forbidden to engage in. Sly and determined, she learns the rituals anyway. I saw this film in a week when I happened to see two documentaries on non-western tribes. Among other things, those documentaries dealt with the coming of age ritual for male children. It occurred to me as I watched these films that the coming of age ritual in the Christian western world is not as dramatic as in these other countries. The typical western child comes at age in stages: driving lessons at 16, voting, prom night and going off to college or the army around age 18, drinking (for those who drink) at age 21. But there really is no great passionate ceremony that teaches young men what it means to become a man. (Or that teaches a young girl what it means to become a young woman.) The rituals in “Whale Rider” teach that courage in the face of one’s enemy, the telling of communal stories through dance, and certain traits of a tribe of former warriors, are marks of manhood.
In the Western world, manhood seems to be defined as the lifting of certain moral prohibitions (drinking, staying out late, etc.) and the gaining of more freedom and responsibility. But these western rituals are usually not communally accepted by the community.
This film is excellent and a great reminder for Christians that some of the traditions of the indigenous peoples are wonderful traditions that complement Christianity well. The spirituality of the people and their respect for nature is sensitively told, and never is there a word breathed against Christians—as often happens in some movies.
The audience also gets a good chance to see a culture rarely seen on film. The film is spiritual but has no blatant agenda except to tell an old legend. The setting and locale of the film are breathtaking. A perfect film for all audiences, although there are suggestions that the brothers have engaged in premarital sex. Highly recommended by this reviewer.
Violence: None | Profanity: None | Sex/Nudity: MinorYear of Release—2003