New Zealand Herald - 22 November 1991 - by Peter Calder


Ancient grievances spawn distinctly modern attempts at redress in the second feature by Maori film-maker Barry Barclay, whose 1987 film 'Ngati' charmed with its poetic and gentle simplicity.
This time, though, there's fire in the belly as writer-director Barclay addresses the vexed question of ownership and control of indigenous artefacts. Even in the wake of the wonderful Te Maori exhibition which brought the word taonga into Pakeha vocabulary, 'Te Rua' seems almost brutally uncompromising to Pakeha eyes. Yet its remorseless logic (on both dramatic and political levels) is irresistible.
Its central characters in terms of screen time are Rewi Marangai (Wi Kuki Kaa) and his relative Peter Huaka (played by Kaa's real-life nephew Peter Kaa). Both, though, are subordinate to an old kuia, Nanny Matai (Nissie Herewini), who speaks only in Maori and is the only one who know the burial place of one of her tribe who assisted a thief a century ago to spirit away carvings from the meeting-house of the fictional Uritoto tribe.
The two men are in Berlin -- the elder now a successful lawyer with big corporate clients and the younger a fashionable performance poet -- where the carvings now rest on their sides in undignified and crated storage in a museum basement.
The two conspire to effect the carvings' return, using and being used by a German-based action group, but ultimately maintaining control over the process of negotiation in the same way as they seek control of the treasures.
'Te Rua' is a problematic work, not least because it rejects narrrative formulas in favour of a style where the unifying threads are spiritual rather than dramatic, which results in an occasionally breathtaking incoherence (although it gains in fluency in the second half to become a taut and engrossing thriller). And it is littered with irritating infelicities such as the decision to subtitle Maori speech but have Germans speaking mangled war-comic dialect to each other.
Yet there is no denying the raw power of Barclay's vision and its amplification by Dalvanius' perfect score and the photography of Rory O'Shea in Berlin and Warwick Attewell here (the Uritoto marae, built for the film, is set on the Wairarapa coast). Scenes such as Rewi's homecoming shine with a lyrical beauty, and the greetings delivered by several characters to the carvings have a hair-raising intensity about them.
In the end, 'Te Rua' is a n awesomely impressive achievement. And the most important thing about it may just be its insistence that it tell its story on its own terms. We would all do well to listen.

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