Told with remarkable directorial skill and with a rare trust that audiences can be patient, Tusi Tamasese’s The Orator is a carefully structured tale of marital friction and personal clashes within an insular community, ultimately testing the mettle of a man who feels his self-worth is no greater than his diminutive height.
Fa'afiaula Sanote is compelling as Saili, a taro farmer who moonlights as a night watchman at a local variety store to ensure his wife Vaaiga (Tausili Pushparaj) and daughter (Salamasina Mataia) are well provided. Between jobs Saili also visits the raised graves of his parents, clearing away the freshly planted crops that not only encroach on his ancestral land, but surround the stone monuments like oversized weeds. The only child of a forgotten chief, Saili is fighting a losing battle to retain ownership of family land, but his life is turned upside-down when his wife’s family visits with an offer to forgive a past insult if she and her daughter agree to return with them.
The film’s title is tied to Saili’s hunger to rise above the limitations he’s imposed on himself – being unwilling to gamble that he has the confidence to follow in his father’s footsteps and become the sage leader of his current village – but it’s also related to Saili’s inability to assert himself and be respected rather than ridiculed as the dwarf farmer who hides in the bushes because he’s afraid of confrontation.
When Saili is finally forced to fight, it’s a crucial battle for his life, because if he returns home empty-handed, there’s a good chance he’ll lose the ability to juggle any of the stressors that have been eroding his self-confidence.
Tamasese’s drama reveals the rich social fabric of his Samoan culture – the social mores, cultural traditions, and the village’s hierarchal structure – but perhaps the most impressive aspect is his storytelling technique. Saili’s daily routine is initially revealed in brief sequences that provide an impressionistic (and somewhat mysterious) glimpse into the family’s life, and while the story’s first conflict begins in the opening scene, the relevant backstories aren’t detailed until Tamasese starts to add new material to what are initially the same scenes. As more meaning is applied to various daily routines, he brings in new characters and conflicts, yet leaves it up to the audience to piece together the full details of Saili’s epic emotional journey.
The denouement does take a while to reach its resolution and there are some pacing issues with later scenes, but certainly in performances and the inclusion of gorgeous New Zealand locations, The Orator is very affecting. The compositions are striking, and Tamasese’s use of sound (effects, ambient sounds, and sparse score) is equally impressionistic, with the massive rainstorm at the film’s beginning functioning as a portent of a terrifying scene near the end.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan