Once Were Warriors: Lee Tamahori Powerful Tale Starring Rena Owen

For a small country, with a population of three million, New Zealand has produced more than its share of first-rate directors and films.

Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures was one of the most impressive films I saw in l994. And of course all the oeuvre (Sweetie, An Angel at My Table, and The Piano) of Jane Campion, the international critics darling, is excellent and deserves to be seen.

The most recent and impressive film, Lee Tamahori’s Once Were Warriors, has successfully played the international film festival circuit. In New Zealand, the movie is breaking national box-office records, surpassing even the success of that global monster, Jurassic Park, Spielberg’s theme-park fantasy-thriller.

Why would a gritty, ultra-realistic work about domestic violence and a battered wife, become the most successful film in the country’s history

The story concerns one brawling working class-family, whose members are the descendants of Maori warriors now living desolate lives of squalor and poverty in the urban ghettos of Auckland. The opening shot establishes right away the locale, contrasting a billboard that advertises the country’s pastoral landscape with the filthy neighborhood of the family, which resides under a freeway.

The Maori culture has long been crushed by English imperialists, who ruthlessly banished its indigenous language and culture. As is often the case of oppressed minorities, the group’s anguished rage seems to have turned inward rather than outward.

There are almost no white characters in the movie, which is concerned less with the colonial injustices inflicted on the Maori than with the violent way a marginal culture deals with its basically irresolvable problems.

There’s no doubt the filmmakers wish to draw pertinent analogies with other racial, inner-city ghettos; the black and Naive American ones immediately come to mind. Nonetheless, the film is so powerful that it doesn’t need this extra social relevance.

Though adapted from Alan Duff’s novel by playwright Riwia Brown, the work is highly cinematic, seldom revealing its literary origins. Its strong protagonist is Beth Heke (Rena Owen), a sensual earthy mother of four children, struggling to keep her family together. Early on, the film suggests the strong sexual bond she enjoys with Jake (Temuera Morrison), her huge brutish husband.

Jobless, Jake spends his days drinking beer with his macho buddies, often getting into silly physical fights. Back at home, he throws loud parties at night that disrupt the little order his children have in their lives.

Beth is decidedly not the quiet, devoted, long-suffering wife. She herself enjoys drinking and singing, and she obviously thinks her husband is a good lover. But she pays high price for her desire: in his alcoholic rages, Jake bashes her. His wild, uncontrollable temper results in brutality, which is immediately followed by strong need for reconciliation–and sex.

The whole family suffers from his undeclared and ineffective leadership. One son joins a gang and covers himself with tattoos; another lands in a reform school, where he learns his first lesson in Maori pride. But the real tragic victim is teenager Grace, who is raped by a family friend in her own bed!

Despite its increasing prevalence in our society, Hollywood movies (I mean big-screen studio fare) have shied away from dealing with domestic violence. The treatments of this issue have been done on TV in a routine formulaic way, with a few exceptions, like The Burning Bed (l984), a highly-rated TV movie, in which Farrah Faucett excelled as a battered wife, who sets her ex-husband on fire, after living with his beatings and humiliations for years.

I don’t recall a film about domestic violence, of any culture, that has been so candidly, so powerfully raw, so emotionally painful on screen. Some scenes are so strong that you’ll find yourself turning away from the screen. It’s the kind of violence that affects us viscerally–not the special-effects violence that we are used to see in overly produced action-adventures.

Rena Owen, who exudes the sensuality and impact of French actress Jeanne Moreau, makes a formidable heroine who’s always on the edge. But her superlative performance and the movie’s visceral directness are marred by a pedestrian narrative, in which every point is delivered as an explicit sermon to the audience. For all its gritty urban details, the writing fails to rise above the melodramatic, which is a shame.

The urban Maori milieu, however, is something to behold. It’s the visual imagery that stays with you–the film was shot by Stuart Dryburgh, The Piano’s great cinematographer. Despite some severe deficiencies, Once Were Warriors is one of the few current movies that will continue to haunt you long after the lights go up.