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MOVIE REVIEW

`Canoes' voyages into tribal myth

July 20, 2007|Kevin Thomas | Special to The Times

Ever-venturesome Australian filmmaker Rolf de Heer, in his beautiful but demanding "Ten Canoes," takes the viewer back 1,000 years to evoke the lives of Aborigines and even further, to a mythological antiquity, the source of tribal beliefs, customs, laws and rituals. De Heer, whose films include the well-received "The Tracker," has understandably been highly praised by the Aboriginal community for evoking its culture and traditions with such authenticity, respect and grace.

In his wholly admirable fidelity to the leisurely pace and endless convolutions of Aboriginal storytelling, De Heer has made a movie that is indeed tough going. Most viewers, aside from those with a passion for the ethnographic, are not likely to find it a conventionally involving film. Its key people emerge as individualistic -- and sometimes amusing, as well as heroic -- in their timeless revelations of the foibles of human nature, but their way of life seems so remote and distant it's difficult to identify with them. "Ten Canoes" is nonetheless audacious and impressive, but challenging work, requiring steadfast concentration.

Ten men from differing tribes gather to harvest bark for canoe making. The canoes will take them into a vast swamp on a search for the eggs of the magpie goose. The expedition is led by an older man (Peter Minygululu), accompanied for the first time by his much younger brother (Jamie Gulpilil, son of David Gulpilil, one of Australia's most renowned actors and this film's narrator).

Aware that his brother covets the youngest of his three wives, Minygululu decides to distract him with a seemingly endless -- and endlessly complicated -- tale that in the end not only celebrates valor, bravery and adherence to law in the face of human folly -- but also extols the virtue of patience. The sequences set a thousand years ago are in black and white, in emulation of photographs from the 1930s, taken by anthropologist Donald Thomson, that were the film's key inspiration, and those in antiquity are in color. The film excels in evoking the blurring of the natural and supernatural in ancient Aboriginal experience, the connection between sexual frustration and aggressive impulses, and the eternal and often tragic consequences of mistaken assumptions.

"Ten Canoes" is rightly reverential and celebratory, but regardless of whether De Heer intended it or not, his film's leisurely ramblings allow the viewer plenty of time to ponder the perverse and often cruel and absurd power of custom -- in this instance the Aboriginal practice of older men taking multiple wives, thus leaving the younger men deprived of having any mate at all. "Ten Canoes" means to enchant but also reminds the viewer of the stubborn streak of close-mindedness that has persisted in people through the ages.

"Ten Canoes." MPAA rating: unrated. In Ganalbingu and other aboriginal dialects with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes. Exclusively ay Landmark's Nuart Theatre, 11272 Santa Monica Blvd., West L.A. (310) 281-8223.

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