Finally saw the much acclaimed Australian aboriginal film Ten Canoes the other day. My verdict: very good but not great.
As you may recall, I posted some reviews of the movie. Here are two positive ones:
NY Times reviews Ten Canoes
WaPo reviews Ten Canoes
and two negative ones:
Ten Canoes flawed
Ten Canoes is tough going
On the one hand, I wouldn't say Ten Canoes was enchanting or engrossing. I wasn't transported "out of time" and couldn't feel the characters' "palpable connections" with their ancestors. I had no doubt I was watching the aborigines as an outsider far removed from their reality.
Too slow and confusing?
On the other, I wouldn't say Ten Canoes was "slow" or not "conventionally involving." I watched it in one sitting without wanting to stop or take a break. It's paced about the same as any human-scale drama without car chases or explosions.
And "difficult to follow"? This film was easy to follow, especially given its potentially complex structure: Aborigine A tells the story of brothers B and C; B tells the parallel story of brothers X and Y. The stories were color-coded, with the first one in black and white and the second in color. Each character looked distinct and was given a brief introduction so you could fix them all in your mind.
If you compare Ten Canoes to Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner, there's a huge difference. For the first 20-30 minutes of Atanarjuat, I wasn't sure what was happening or who the main characters were. There's no such problem in Ten Canoes.
The problem with Ten Canoes
The only significant problem in Ten Canoes is something the reviewers didn't mention. The point of the movie is the lessons learned from the story of Aborigines X and Y. The story revolves around X's missing wife; he makes a tragic mistake and pays for it. The message is something like "look before you leap" (or "fools rush in where angels fear to tread," or "act in haste, repent in leisure"). But in the end Y learns a totally different lesson along the lines of "be careful what you wish for because you just might get it."
Aborigine C has been waiting the whole movie to learn what happens to Aborigine Y, his past counterpart. His reaction to the outcome of B's story could've and should've been, "Why did you spend an hour telling me about X when the point was about Y? You could've skipped X's story entirely and given me the three-minute version of Y's story."
In other words, the story is poorly constructed to deliver a single profound truth. It actually delivers two unrelated, less-than-profound truths that don't gel. The payoff isn't quite worth the journey.
But overall Ten Canoes is solid and engaging. I'd say it's equivalent to the other good indigenous movies I've reviewed. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.
For more on the subject, see The Best Indian Movies.